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This is the 5th IAE Newsletter
in a new series on Credibility and Validity of Information.
Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 5: The Natural Sciences
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon
Information from Previous Newsletters in the
Credibility focuses on a
belief that the person who made an allegation about a phenomenon is
believable and can indeed be trusted. It is common to talk about a
person and what the person writes and/or says as being credible and
Validity is an important
component of research. The word tends to be used in two somewhat
Validity is the quality of being logically or factually sound.
Validity is the extent to which a concept, conclusion, or measurement
is well-founded. Results produced by valid research can be tested by
others repeating the research. Additional evidence of validity is
produced by research designed to find contractions to the results, and
that fail to find such contradictions.
In education, a research instrument or test is valid if it
accurately measures what it is purported to measure.
In brief summary, one can think of credibility having a subjective base
and validity having an objective base. The performance of a gymnast or
dancer is determined by subjective methodologies, while mathematics and
the sciences use objective methodologies.
Confusing a Child’s Mind
When I was quite young, an adult told me (facetiously, I
hope) that the moon is made of green cheese. For me, this was a new
piece of information that I didn’t understand very well, and I filed it
away in my head. Over a period of years I learned additional “facts”
that my mind associated with the green cheese moon. These included the
man in the moon, “blue” or moldy cheese, and still later that cheese
that has not been aged very long is called green cheese. Still later, I
got to watch television as the first man walked on the moon.
How does a young mind handle a steady stream of information with widely
varying levels of credibility and validity? Humans have creative minds,
and they seek explanations for what they observe in nature. Two
thousand years ago, it was widely believed that the earth was flat and
that the sun orbited the earth. Children learned these “facts” from
their parents and others. Their own observations did not provide
obvious contradictions to what they were told.
I find the issue of whether the earth is the center of the universe and
the sun orbits the earth to be particularly interesting. As scientists
developed the telescope, theory of gravity, and calculus they were able
to put together very strong arguments that the earth was not the center
of the universe and that the sun did not orbit the earth. This led to
major clashes between the established Catholic Church and these
Scientists eventually prevailed. But, even today many people believe
that the sun orbits the earth. That is, it just does not seem credible
to them that the earth orbits the sun. A person watches the sun “rise”
in the east and “set” in the west. This observational data and
vocabulary supports the contention that the sun orbits the earth. A
research study funded by the National Science Foundation in 2012 and
reported on in 2014 indicated that about a quarter of adults in the
United States and a third of adults in Europe believe that the sun
orbits the earth (Grossman, 2/16/2014).
Adult minds are also confused by the steady barrage of so-called
“facts” that we receive through the media and directly from other
people. What do you believe when you hear a politician giving their
opinion about the correctness of forecasts of global warming and then
telling us what we should do about the situation?
One thing you can do is to make use of the Web to investigate the correctness of the “facts.” My 12/11/2014 Google search of fact checking produced more than 13 million hits. I refined my search to fact checking global warming and got over 270,000 hits.
Earlier this year we looked at a detailed video from Louisiana
congressional candidate Lenar Whitney, who repeated the assertion that
climate change is a hoax. We found—as we have before—that there’s an
overwhelming consensus among respected scientists that human-caused
global warming is real. In this fact-check, we looked at some of
Whitney’s supporting evidence to argue that global warming is a hoax
and found that it was weak. We rated her statement Pants on Fire.
Evidently “Pants of Fire” comes from the commonly used children’s
expression, “Liar, liar, pants on fire.” Notice the statement, “there’s
an overwhelming consensus among respected scientists that human-caused
global warming is real.” Does an “overwhelming consensus” contribute to
the credibility and validity of natural science research results?
Credibility and Validity in the Natural Sciences
This IAE Newsletter
explores how credibility and validity are determined for results
developed by researchers in the natural sciences. See Understanding
Science (n.d.) for a brief answer to the question, “What is science?”
The natural sciences include disciplines such as astronomy, biology,
chemistry, computer science, medicine, physics, and so on. Mathematics
(discussed in the previous issue of the IAE Newsletter) is usually considered to be a science, but it is not considered to be a natural science.
Natural scientists work to develop very accurate descriptive and
predictive patterns, characteristics, and models of our natural world.
The goal of researchers in the natural sciences is to discover results
that stand the test of time and that others can confidently build upon
(Moursund, 2014). For example, the current science of the earth
orbiting the sun and the moon orbiting the earth is sufficiently
accurate that it allows us to predict the time of sunrise, sunset,
eclipses of the sun, and eclipses of the moon very accurately many
years in advance.
As illustrated in the incorrect theory about the sun orbiting the
earth, some results produced by scientists become widely accepted but
eventually are proved to be wrong. Even though today’s natural
scientists make extensive use of valid mathematics, this by no means
ensures that their pronouncements are always correct.
So, here are two important questions about natural science information:
How is the validity of information from natural science researchers determined?
How does holding a strong belief in and acting on natural science
information that has little or no validity affect both the people
taking such actions and other people?
The next two sections of this newsletter will briefly address these questions.
Validity of Natural Science Research-based Information
Isaac Newton was one of the most brilliant science and mathematics researchers of all time. Among other things, he developed a theory
of gravitation. His theory states that any two objects in the universe
that have mass attract each other, and it provides details on the
strength of this attraction.
The word conjecture is often
used to describe some information or ideas that one believes might be
correct. Natural scientists and mathematicians often use the term to
describe an idea or belief that they have thought carefully about, but
have not produced valid arguments to support their belief.
The term theory is used to
describe a conjecture that has been carefully studied and is supported
by “strong” evidence that others can examine. This allows others to
repeat the research and conduct additional related research.
Newton conjectured that there was a force which we now call gravity and
that it applied to every particle of mass in our universe. His research
on this topic produced a theory that was very precisely stated as a
formula in the notation of mathematical physics. Many years of research
efforts to find counter examples to this theory and many
findings/discoveries based on use of the theory have led science
researchers to believe very strongly in the correctness of Newton’s
theory about gravitation.
Scientists use the term law to
describe a theory that has undergone such scrutiny for many years—one
that has stood the test of time (Physical Laws, n.d.). Newton’s 1687
conjecture became a theory and is now called the Universal Law of
Gravitation. This law is certainly not like a law created by a
governing body of politicians and enforced by a police force. Moreover,
even though it has been carefully tested and applied for hundreds of
years, this does not ensure that it is completely, absolutely, for sure
valid. Perhaps it is safe to say that it has about the highest level of
validity that discoveries in science can have.
However, in the early 1900s,
Albert Einstein developed the general theory of relativity. It turns
out that Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation is very close to correct
for massive bodies. However, quoting from Universal Gravitation (n.d.):
Newton's law has since been superseded by Einstein's theory of general relativity,
but it continues to be used as an excellent approximation of the
effects of gravity. Relativity is required only when there is a need
for extreme precision, or when dealing with very strong gravitational
fields, such as those found near extremely massive and dense objects,
or at very close distances (such as Mercury's orbit around the sun).
Einstein’s 1905 formula E=mc2 has served the natural sciences well for
over a hundred years. It has not yet achieved the status of being
called a law of science. Many attempts to disprove the theory have
failed, but this does not mean that eventually someone will succeed in
disproving the theory. See, for example, Daniel Stolte’s article on
testing Einstein’s theory (1/4/2013).
Acting On or Failing to Act On Natural Science Theories
Medical researchers discovered that the disease called scurvy is caused by a severe lack of vitamin C. Quoting from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
Although accounts of what was probably
scurvy are found in ancient writings, the first clear-cut descriptions
appear in the records of the medieval Crusades. Later, toward the end
of the 15th century, scurvy became the major cause of disability and
mortality among sailors on long sea voyages. In 1753 Scottish naval
surgeon James Lind showed that scurvy could be cured and prevented by
ingestion of the juice of oranges and lemons.
This is an excellent example of a medical research study leading to
widespread use of the findings. It didn’t make any difference whether
an individual sailor believed that the research and medical treatment
were either credible or valid. The non-believer who avoided getting the
necessary vitamin C could become ill, and perhaps die. Fortunately,
scurvy was not transmitted from person to person, so those who got
scurvy did not infect others.
Now, consider the situation of various diseases that have been well
researched and that we now know are spread via bacteria and viruses.
Researchers have developed vaccines for some of these diseases, and
treatments using antibiotics and antivirals for others. This presents
the medical world and all of us with challenges such as:
If enough people fail to get vaccinated, they will be at risk of
becoming ill, and thereby contributing to spreading the disease. Those
at risk include people who did not get vaccinated for personal
reasons/beliefs and those did not get vaccinated for medical reasons.
This topic is much more complex than the previous sentences suggest.
Vaccines are not 100% effective. But, a vaccine does not need to be
100% effective to prevent an epidemic spread of a disease. Each person
for whom a vaccination proves ineffective is like a person who failed
to get vaccinated. It the number of “failures to be effective” and the
number “not getting a vaccination” is above some critical level, a
disease can rapidly spread and perhaps even go epidemic.
Over-use or inappropriate use of the drugs can help facilitate
genetic modifications in the bacteria and viruses, and eventually make
the drugs ineffective. This puts a great many people at risk.
Two Examples of Current Major Problems in the Natural Sciences
People in our world are routinely faced by science-related
problems for which our current knowledge of science cannot provide
definitive, “for very, very sure” answers. This short section uses
global warming and Ebola to illustrate such challenges.
As noted earlier in this newsletter, a high percentage of scientists
who have the scientific and technical knowledge to understand global
warming research believe that global warming is occurring and that
humans are one of the major causes. Forecasts of the effects that this
warming will cause are scary!
Global warming is very complex because it involves so many variables
acting over a long period of time. The computer models that have been
developed in studying this situation do not have the credibility of
Newton’s law of gravitation or Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Moreover, weather forecasting is a very complex problem—much more
difficult than accurately forecasting the time of tomorrow’s sunrise or
sunset at a specified place on the earth’s surface.
There is considerable agreement among researchers that, if we are going
to take action to decrease the level of global warming that is likely
to occur, we need to be taking action now. However, many individuals
and nations do not believe that statements about global warming are
credible—they do not accept the credibility of the researchers and/or the validity of the research studies in the field of global warming.
So, from my point of view we have a situation in which:
We have a theory of global warming that is widely believed by
“experts” but is disbelieved by many, and has not yet had the time to
undergo the scrutiny of researchers over a long period of time.
Failure to take significant actions now may well prove disastrous to hundreds of millions of people over the current century.
We have good evidence of successful worldwide cooperation in
medicine—for example, in dealing with smallpox and polio. The world’s
record in addressing many other global problems is “spotty.”
At the time I am writing this newsletter, a number of years have passed
since leading scientists began to sound the warning (Climate Change,
n.d.). Evidently we have passed the point of no return on the melting
of some of the polar icecaps. Now, (finally, at last) a number of
countries are beginning to show signs of taking action that can
mitigate the still worse situations that are on the horizon (Gillis
& Chang, 5/12/2014).
Ebola is a terrible disease that is spread by contact with bodily
fluids. It is very contagious and has a high mortality rate. This
disease could potentially kill many millions of people. Evidently a
large number of the West Africans who are currently most at risk
believe that Ebola is a hoax (McCordic, 8/18 2014). However, the United
Nations and a number of countries capable of providing aid are very
convinced of the dangers of Ebola and are providing significant amounts
of medical and humanitarian aid.
At the time I am writing this IAE Newsletter,
it appears that good progress is being made in developing Ebola
vaccines that can help prevent Ebola, and drugs that will be effective
in treating Ebola. However, even if effective vaccines and drugs are
developed, the world still faces the problem of getting widespread
acceptance of their use.
Research and development in the natural sciences have contributed
immensely to improvements in quality of life and standard of living in
our world. That is one of the driving forces that lead scientists to
devote their lives to advancing the frontiers of their fields of study.
However, there are many people who do not understand and/or who do not
accept the credibility and validity of results from research in the
natural sciences. This is a challenge to our informal and formal
educational systems. History suggests that over time, the validity of
research in the natural sciences will eventually prevail with a
dominant majority of people.
David Moursund earned his doctorate in mathematics from the
University of Wisconsin-Madison. A few highlights of his professional
career include being the first Chair of the Department of Computer
Science at the University of Oregon, founding the International Society
for Technology in Education (ISTE), serving as ISTE’s executive officer
for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology (now named entrsekt).
He was a major professor or co-major professor of 82 doctoral
students—six in Mathematics and 76 in Education. He has authored or
coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. He has
presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops.
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