In the past month I have been occasionally visiting local third-grade classes with some colleagues to deliver a lesson on adaptive variation. It isn’t as dry as that makes it sound—there are puzzles and tiny spoons and squishy fishing lures. We are fun scientists. Science is fun! Science is fun but if you don’t put the fishing lures back in the bins and pay attention, we won’t get to start, okay, I know they’re gross, please don’t throw them, thank you, as I was saying, science is fun!
It has been interesting to see how much difference there is between classes. One class squirmed and giggled whenever we suggested that animals might need to find, as we put it, “boyfriends and girlfriends.” Another class was completely unfazed. “Yes,” one student in that class clarified, “they need to find mates.” Every class so far has known about camouflage and what hummingbirds eat.
The general public–and especially the media–appears to be conflicted over what it means when a person has a PhD. There are three main schools of thought:
1) A PhD means you are an awesome genius and know everything.
2) A PhD means you are an ivory tower elitist and know nothing.
3) A PhD means you belong to a nefarious conspiracy dedicated to lending credibility to lies in order to get money or fame.
Sometimes several of these are combined. Believe both #1 and #3, and you’ve got one of the main arguments of climate change deniers (“Climate scientists are lying and spreading false fear in order to keep their jobs secure, and we know this because we found one climate scientist who says climate change isn’t real!”).
The ivory tower elitist PhDs are in a conspiracy of lies to make the public continue to give them research money, and I believe this because the guy who told me has a PhD, so you know he’s right!
None of these three are true.
Science is not just for scientists. The methods of thought that underlie science are useful in all sorts of everyday contexts. Most obviously, everyone needs to be able to think like a scientist in order to interpret scientific results—you know, those newspaper headlines like “PAPER CLIP USE MAY LOWER IQ IN PREGNANT WOMEN!!” In that spirit, I’m going to write about some key concepts for thinking like a scientist. Today: sample size.
Pop quiz! You read this (totally made up) report: “Two groups of ten age- and health-matched men were monitored for heart disease. One group was given pet ferrets, while the other was not. The ferret-owning men were 8% less likely to develop heart disease over a five year period.” So: is it time to run out and get a ferret for the sake of your heart health?
You should get a ferret regardless, because ferrets are wonderful. This is my awesome old ferret Zap.