How to respond if a child asks you a science question you don't know the answer to
Today, I was very sad to see a news article Children’s science questions “stump many parents”. I was not sad for any of the following reasons:
- Oh no, kids these days are receiving a poor science education!
- Oh no, the parents received a poor science education when they were young!
I was sad because of many of the parents’ reactions to their children’s questions:
...16% told their children to ask their partner and a fifth made up a response or pretended that no one knew the answer.
What are some better alternative responses?
The first step to acting like a scientist: not knowing
One obvious response that is already by itself profoundly adequate would be to say “I don’t know”. So easy, so honest, yet many parents refused to use this response. But a parent who replied even in only this minimalist way would be teaching some very important lessons about science:
- Science begins with not knowing.
- Science is about being honest about reality and about oneself; it is about deliberately restricting one’s ego, recognizing one’s limitations, and acknowledging ignorance.
- Science proceeds with asking. The child by asking should be commended for asking, rather than implicitly punished or evaded for possibly embarrassing the parent.
- Science proceeds with trying to find out.
The second step to acting like a scientist: looking for an answer
Regarding trying to find out, here is another quote from the article:
About a third of parents said they actively researched answers to their children's inquiries.
It would be possible to stop here and praise these parents.
But as phrased, this response is not satisfactory either:
- Science is not about looking up an answer somewhere, as one might look up a baseball statistic.
- How involved were the children in obtaining the “answer”? Did the parents fetch the “answer” and hand it over? Or did the children get actively involved in looking for the answer?
- Science is not about sitting back and getting an answer from someone.
- Science is not really about answers at all. It is a mindset, a process of looking for an answer, and looking for ways to evaluate possible answers for adequacy and some measure of confidence. It is above all a way of life.
The third step to acting like a scientist: being wrong
Sometimes one settles on an answer, and then later decides it is unsatisfactory. What then?
- Science is not about being right.
- Science is often about saying “I was wrong”.
The third step to acting like a scientist: uncertainty
Eventually even the notion of “answer” must be considered flawed. We are never certain about our theories. Our theories are based on models that we invent. The models can have explanatory or predictive power or practical applications, but they themselves are transient. The scientific models from two centuries ago are very different from the scientific models of thirty years ago, and the scientific models of today are very different from the scientific models of thirty years ago. What we believed to be the “answer” thirty years ago looks today to have been an error.
And unless we believe that we are near the “end of science” (I do not believe this for a moment), we must also take into consideration the plausibility that thirty years from now, we will laugh at the currently favored scientific models of today the way we laugh at the hair and clothing styles of the 1980s.
- Science is about saying “I am not sure”.
The best thing that everyone could learn about science, whether one is young or old, child or parent, is what its true nature is: a way of thinking, a way of acting, a way of living. It is not about “facts” to accumulate, or jargon to memorize.comments powered by Disqus