Asking Questions Like a Scientist

In this video, Neil Degresse Tyson answers questions about the year 2012 prophecies.

Neil handles the questions well, but I wanted to point out a couple of instances that show how scientists think about questions like this:

First, someone asks the question wrong. Since the question comes before the start of the video, we have to imagine what was said. But, Neil playfully makes fun of the imprecise question and asks for clarification. In doing so, he takes a vague question and turns it into a very specific question. Being clear and specific is key to good scientific questions. Being vague is usually a sign of bullshit.

I could just tell you its all bunk, but then you wouldn’t be empowered to understand why. …I never want you to quote me citing my authority as a scientist for your knowing something. If that’s what you have to resort to, I have failed as an educator.

This is a beautiful quote from the video that highlights what it means to a scientist to know something. ‘Knowing’ has many layers of depth. Being told something by an authority figure or a textbook does not count as knowing something in science. You need to know the reason that thing is true. You need to know what evidence exists to support that knowledge. You need to know what kinds of evidence might challenge that knowledge. This message gets thoroughly muddled in our society by an education system that has ‘science’ classes where students recite facts given to them by authority figures.

Science literacy is not just how much science you’ve memorized. No. Its how is your brain wired for inquiry?

In schools, we tend to measure scientific literacy by how much science students have memorized because that’s the easiest way to measure it. However, Neil is totally right on this point. Scientific facts can easily be looked up. What we should want for students is to help them wire their brains for inquiry!

What you say next is “how often does that happen?”

‘How often does that happen’ is a great question for a thinker to ask. A lot of bullshitting happens because people get confused about how common a certain event is. Neil discusses an annual event that is being passed off as extraordinary to get people to buy into the 2012 hoax. Another great example of this brand of bullshit is with testimonials. These are often extraordinary cases being passed off as ordinary. For example, when a diet pill uses the case of a customer who lost a lot of weight in a short period of time to sell their pills to people, they are hoping you won’t ask them “how often does that happen?” Its a powerful question to keep in your back pocket.


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