Dispelling Some Common Myths about Science
by Dr. Terry Halwes

Science is not a new kind of knowledge; it is not created only by a professional elite; and "The Scientific Method" is really many methods, including aspects of basic intelligence found in infants and animals.

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OVERVIEW

Note on the revision of these pages: I try to revise my various pages periodically, to bring them into line with changes in my understanding (or in my ability to communicate accurately). It seems that the earlier version of these pages on science and how it works were especially confusing: Some readers thought I was criticizing science, itself, rather than erroneous views of the nature of science. I hope this is clearer.

More specifically, this is not a criticism of science as a method of learning about ourselves and our world. A generally scientific approach to research and problem solving is often referred to as "the scientific method," and that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm criticizing the notion that there is any single special method that all scientists use, which would warrant the label "the scientific method." Still more specifically, in another article titled The Myth of the Magical Scientific Method, I try to show that the common practice of teaching the "hypothetico-deductive method" as The Scientific Method is a serious mistake.


Misconceptions about science abound in the popular media, and they are quite popular in the professional media as well. Most systems of education and training in science begin by trying to give a general explanation of what science is and how it works. Those general explanations are often misleading, and nearly everyone gets exposed to them. Critical analysis of those explanations is rarely presented.

Having so much widely disseminated inaccurate information about something as important as science has many unfortunate consequences. Many students who might otherwise love science -- don't; Many teachers who might love sharing with their students the richness of how science actually works -- can't; Many political and business leaders who ought to base their decisions on understanding science and how it grows -- won't.

Accurate communication about science, in general, isn't easy, because science has so many different facets. Nobody really understands science and why it works so amazingly well -- but many people are trained to believe that they do understand it (or at least that somebody does), and that they should pass these beliefs along to their students.

Think about it: We don't even really understand how babies learn to walk, much less how they learn to talk and to solve problems. We are just beginning to really understand how anybody learns anything, communicates with anyone else about anything, or accomplishes any sort of accurate reasoning. Since the particular instances of learning, communicating, and reasoning that we call "science" are at least as complex as any other intelligent activity, it's no wonder we don't understand them yet, either. 

In fact, very little scientific research on how science works has ever been done. That leaves plenty of room for over generalization, speculation, and outright nonsense.  The obligatory general discussions of how science works, given at the beginning of introductory science courses, may seem to make sense -- but nothing as rich and varied as the real workings of science can be captured so simply.

In these pages I won't pretend to provide a correct account of the nature of science, or the best way to teach it; all I really intend to do is to invite attention to some extreme beliefs about science that are very common, but mostly wrong or misleading. 

We will (if you stick around) examine one enormous myth, which I The Myth of Magical Science, and several other myths.

The Myth of Magical Science has three parts: Scientific knowledge is (1) a special, superior type of knowledge, made possible by (2) a special, superior kind of person, a "Scientist," who uses (3) a superior way of developing and evaluating knowledge, the "Scientific Method."

Other myths include the notions that scientists must be (or always are) Objective and Unbiased, and that scientific knowledge is True, Disprovable, Publicly Verifiable, and fundamentally Statistical. Other myths concern the various details of how "The Scientific Method" is supposed to work, details like the supposedly obligatory use of Operational Definitions.

Most of these ideas about science are partly true. For example, most scientific knowledge is provided by professional scientists -- the myth is the idea that these scientists are the only people who make discoveries that become part of science. However, Part 3 of The Myth of Magical Science is just wrong: There is no unique "Scientific Method."

Let's take a closer look.

The Myth of Magical Science

The Minor Myths


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THE MYTH OF MAGICAL SCIENCE

Modern science is an amazing phenomenon, and people naturally wonder how it works. You'd think that science itself would provide the answer, but scientific studies of how science, in general, works are quite unusual. Many scientists and observers have published their views on the question, but the various accounts disagree widely and rarely even refer to evidence. All in all, we've been offered quite an array of different answers to this question, some of them more or less accurate and some of them ridiculous. 

One cluster of largely mistaken views is now commonly believed to be the simple truth about how science develops new knowledge. Our schools and media foster these beliefs -- I call them The Myth of Magical Science. A brief summary of the main points would go something like this: 

(1) Scientific Knowledge is a new type of knowledge, superior to common sense and all other types of non-scientific beliefs.

(2) Scientific Knowledge can only be discovered by highly trained professional scientists.

(3) Scientists obtain Scientific Knowledge by following The Scientific Method, a uniquely powerful tool for understanding Reality.

Do these points seem obvious? Have you ever seen them presented as ideas or theories or beliefs about science that might be incorrect? Probably not. They are part of the background of beliefs that are assumed by almost all of us.

The question of how scientific work proceeds and why it is so successful is hardly ever presented as a question at all. It is presented as a cut-and-dried formula for scientific research and training, as if scientific research were well understood. 

Later on this page we point out some of the problems with each of the three main points of the Myth of Magical Science:

No Special Method is Required

No Special Type of Knowledge is Produced

Who Really Creates Scientific Knowledge?

After giving up the notions that science is a special type of knowledge developed by special people using a special method, we'll be left with an important question unanswered -- What is it about science that makes it seem so special? I'll discuss that briefly in another section of this page:

So What IS Special about Science?


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NO SPECIAL METHOD IS REQUIRED

The scientist has no other method than doing his damnedest.
-- P.W. Bridgman

I stated Part 3 of the Myth of Magical Science like this: 

Scientists obtain Scientific Knowledge by following The Scientific Method, a uniquely powerful tool for understanding Reality.

Much of the discussion in the literature of the philosophy of science turns around the problem of distinguishing scientific knowledge acquisition from other ways of acquiring knowledge. The philosophers assumed that science is special and were trying to understand exactly how it is special. We could summarize the task they set themselves as two questions: What is the nature of the special method scientists use, and how is it different from and superior to other ways of gaining knowledge?

Any theorist who wants to take this project seriously as a way to come up with an explanation of how science works finds herself in a very difficult position: A special method is required, which must be able to account for all of scientific progress. Furthermore, it must be shown that when what scientists do looks like what happens in non-scientific knowledge acquisition, it really isn't.

A scientist approaching the problem of understanding how science works, and why it has been so amazingly productive, might start out quite differently. Since science is one of the ways that human beings use for learning about themselves and their world, our scientist would examine what we know about other types of thinking and learning. She would certainly include the learning skills that the philosophers of science were trying to exclude -- methods of learning that human beings share with other animals, for example, and the development of ordinary "common-sense" knowledge by human beings. She would be very interested in the question of how scientists use these types of learning and thinking in their work. 

For example, one of the most basic forms of learning is learning about something by paying attention to it, without manipulating it in any way. Animals learn this way all the time, and so do scientists. Then there are ways that people learn that are available only to human beings, for example learning about something by reading and thinking about descriptions of what other people have learned before. Obviously, scientists do that a lot, too. A great many other many methods for learning and thinking are used by both scientists and non-scientists.

It is possible that scientists may also learn in ways that non-scientists never use, but that remains to be seen. If we ask our scientist of science, she would say that that is an empirical question. Until we have some well developed evidence showing that scientific knowledge acquisition is somehow special, it is certainly inappropriate to assume that it must be different from other ways of acquiring knowledge. 

Even if special methods of learning and thinking that are unique to science do exist, they are certainly not what most scientists use, most of the time. What is required for scientific progress is mainly ordinary curiosity, ordinary awareness, ordinary learning, ordinary reasoning, and fairly ordinary communication. Of course scientists work hard to develop and use precise technical terms for many of the things they talk about, but so do lawyers and golfers and cooks. It would be quite surprising to our scientist of science if she discovered that scientists regularly use an entirely unique type of technicality in their professional jargon.

I'm certainly not claiming that we understand all these ordinary cognitive functions; I am merely saying that we have, so far, no compelling reason to suppose that the curiosity, awareness, thinking, learning and communicating involved in science are different from their ordinary counterparts. One scholar stated the issue quite clearly:
 

I spent many years trying to distinguish fruitfully between one or more scientific methods, and various methods used by historians, lawyers, medical doctors, people in general, etc. I used to teach courses in history of science, and occasionally philosophy of science for a philosophy department. I was never able to find a convincing set of arguments which showed that the methods of scientists differed in some fundamental way from methods used in other fields. That is, logical reasoning was of the same nature throughout, uses of precedent and past experience were of the same nature, uses of observation, evidence and (when available) experiment were of the same nature, and so on.
 
Gordon Fisher -- (Full text no longer available on the Web)

Scientists generally use, in their work, the same types of cognition as regular folks. Furthermore, there is also no unique method, used by all scientists, that could reasonably be called "The Scientific Method." In his book Reflections of a Physicist, Percy W. Bridgman addressed the issue from the perspective of the scientist:
 

Scientific method is something talked about by people standing on the outside and wondering how the scientist manages to do it....

What appears to [the working scientist] as the essence of the situation is that he is not consciously following any prescribed course of action, but feels complete freedom to utilize any method or device whatever which in the particular situation before him seems likely to yield the correct answer. In his attack on his specific problem he suffers no inhibitions of precedent or authority, but is completely free to adopt any course that his ingenuity is capable of suggesting to him. No one standing on the outside can predict what the individual scientist will do or what method he will follow. In short, science is what scientists do, and there are as many scientific methods as there are individual scientists.

 Percy W. Bridgman -- "On Scientific Method"

In summary, scientists actually use quite a lot of methods: There is no single method that all scientists use, and most of the methods they do use are not all that special -- they're used in a lot of other professions, methods like "trial and error," for example. 

Furthermore, the so called "Scientific Method" that students are taught, the "hypothetico-deductive method," can't be followed, because it's not really a method at all -- it's an failed attempt to give a logical analysis of how empirical knowledge depends on evidence. When people take it as a method and try to follow it, it leads to serious problems. These are somewhat involved topics that I've decided to put on a separate page: 

The Myth of the Magical "Scientific Method"

I call it "The Magical Scientific Method" because it was supposed to provide a fail-safe route to empirically valid knowledge, but it never worked as promised. The program failed partly because the logical analysis was incorrect -- but the main problem was that science just isn't that simple. As in the Sherlock Holmes stories, there's just no predicting what astonishing observations and inferences we humans will come up with next.


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NO SPECIAL TYPE OF KNOWLEDGE IS PRODUCED


We are discussing the common belief that scientific knowledge is a special, superior type of knowledge, made possible by a special method. We just concluded that there is no special method which is unique to science. The next point is that scientific knowledge is not particularly special, either.

Part 1 of the Myth of Magical Science goes something like this: 

Scientific Knowledge is a new type of knowledge, superior to common sense and all other types of nonscientific beliefs.

When I say that scientific knowledge is not special, I do not mean that it is not superior in content to much of what went before. I mean that it is not a superior kind of knowledge. While scientific knowledge may be superior in various ways, it is not fundamentally a different type of knowledge from ordinary knowledge.

The improvement in content from a pre-scientific understanding of some aspect of the natural world, to a scientific understanding of that topic, is not necessarily a different kind of improvement, than the change in content from a scientific understanding of some domain to a later, improved, scientific understanding. 

Scientific knowledge may be a different kind of knowledge, if the previous view was not based on careful thinking about evidence, but it may not be a different kind of knowledge. 

For example, certain religious ideas are considered to be knowledge by the people who hold them, knowledge of a superior sort that can only be provided by divine revelation, knowledge justified by pure faith alone. If that is knowledge, it is certainly a different kind of knowledge than what scientists develop using observable evidence and logic and experimentation -- but observation and logic and even experimentation are found in most human activities.

Careful examination of and involvement with and thinking about any phenomenon, over a long period of time, as with a farmer's awareness of the effects of the seasons on her crops, can yield understanding that is no different in kind from much of the scientific understanding of that phenomenon.

When a new science emerges out of the background of common-sense belief and practical detail in a particular area, the scientists do not begin by re-examining all that background knowledge to make sure it comes up to some scientific standard of quality and reliability. They take for granted these generally respected beliefs and methods as they focus on whatever it is that they are interested in.

Our understanding of ourselves and our world, and our understanding of science itself, retains an unknown quantity of pre-scientific beliefs and practices which have never been studied scientifically and are assumed to be more or less true and workable.

For the most part, this background knowledge is adequately true and workable: Our ancestors, human and non human, have had hundreds of millions of years of biological and social evolution for working on getting these things right. Aspects of the background knowledge that get exposed as the cause of some failure or inconsistency are replaced, refined, or noted as suspect. From that perspective, science is merely continuing a project that began at the first dawning of awareness.

One final point on this theme: In stressing the extent to which most scientific knowledge is not some new special kind of knowledge, I do not mean to imply that there are no new kinds of knowledge, superior as could be, that have been developed by science -- knowledge the like of which was never seen before science created that new way of knowing. I am merely saying that scientific knowledge does not, in general, consist entirely of any such delightfully fancy new type of knowledge.


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WHO REALLY CREATES SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE?


So maybe there is no new method, unique to science, that scientists have to use to make any progress; and maybe scientific knowledge is not a special separate kind of knowledge, either; but surely scientists are the people who create scientific knowledge. Right?

Part 2 of the Myth of Magical Science goes something like this: 

Scientific Knowledge can only be developed by professional scientists.

It's just not that simple. We're not particularly talking about the old story of science being done in big projects and the gals with the Ph.D.s getting all the credit, either. This discussion is not about who gets credit for anything -- it's about what actually happens in the creation of what we call scientific knowledge.

Two aspects of this problem are easy to understand, once you think about them. The first concerns the initial creation or development or discovery of a particular fact or principle; the second concerns the dissemination of this new knowledge.

Regarding the first aspect, remember what we discussed in the preceding section about background knowledge?

    "Our understanding of ourselves and our world, and our understanding of science itself, retains an unknown quantity of pre-scientific beliefs and practices which have never been studied scientifically and are assumed to be true and workable."
That background knowledge was not created by scientists: 
    "Our ancestors, human and non human, have had hundreds of millions of years of biological and social (cultural) evolution for working on getting these things right." 
That is not the end of it, though. New "background knowledge" is being created all the time. I don't know if we are still evolving biologically (probably we are) but we are certainly still evolving socially and culturally.

If you look at the history of science, you'll see that the advancement of knowledge was always a dance between the non-scientists and the scientists who were both interested in some particular aspect of the natural world. One favorite example is the way that artists and the scientists played off of each other's discoveries about light and color and perspective and so on. 

This is still going on today, not just between engineers and mathematicians and scientists, but between all the people who are really interested in anything and scientists. Here's another historical example: The woman who developed the beginnings of modern descriptive statistics was neither a scientist nor a mathematician -- she was a nurse. Her name was Florence Nightingale, and she planted the roots of modern nursing while she was inventing statistics, showing that the British Army was losing more soldiers to unsanitary hospital conditions than to enemy fire.

The second aspect concerns the dissemination of new knowledge, whatever it's origins may have been. Science is a communal function. Obviously, when we talk about scientific understanding of some particular phenomenon or principle, we mean more than that someone discovered it or developed an understanding of it: We mean that they discussed it with their colleagues, who may have helped to refine it in various ways; we mean that they published it professionally, so that any interested scientist could get a shot at it; but we mean more even than all that.

At this point the community of people who are participating in understanding this particular slab of science is still mostly confined to members of various research teams -- scientists, in a somewhat broad sense of the word. We may wonder just how broad: Is a secretary, who points out that a particular way of expressing a key point is ambiguous, a scientist? Lets say that he is -- that any member of the research team is a scientist in this broad sense of the term. Even with such a broad definition of the term "scientist," the process of developing a scientific understanding of a phenomenon or principle extends beyond the community of scientists per se.

Even if we were only interested in scientists, scientists in the narrowest possible sense of the word, and their understanding of a scientific principle, we still would have to consider where the next generation of scientists is going to come from. They are going to be people who have learned about the discoveries and the still unanswered questions in that particular discipline, and have divided to devote quite a lot of time to learning more about it. So anyone who contributes to helping people understand that discipline is training scientists or improving the training of scientists, and thus participating in developing the scientific understanding of that particular phenomenon or principle.

We are talking about teachers, of course, but also science writers and librarians and people who produce PBS videos and on and on, as far as you would care to go. But this section is already quite long, so let's leave it at that for now. (This topic seems to want it's own page.)

For now, let's consider just one example to bring this down to earth a bit: The original proof of a new mathematical principle is sometimes so complicated and long that even the person or team that proved it cannot really understand it completely. Once a proof is completed, though, people are inspired to study it, clarify it and simplify it. It may drop from a hundred pages or more, to fifty and then to twenty or so, and finally to five or ten pages that could be understood by a dedicated high school student. As I see it, everybody involved contributed to the development of that particular slab of knowledge.

As more and more people gain access to high quality information about science, this process becomes more and more efficient. Who knows what effect the World Wide Web will have, as it fosters discussion (and participation) by any interested people, and makes self training in practically any discipline steadily easier.

In this brave new world, science will be the business of anyone who cares to devote time and resources to working on it; and the professional scientist may take her rightful place as the facilitator of the general public devotion to improved understanding.

You can already see this happening. Some students are begining as early as junior high school to do research projects that are considered, by scientists specializing in research on their chosen topics, to be valuable contributions to scientific understanding. For example, consider some of the entrants in the Science Talent Search


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SO WHY IS SCIENCE SO POWERFUL?

If we give up the Myth of Magical Science (which we must, since it's so deadly simplistic) we might be left with no explanation of why science is so amazingly effective. Something that spectacular requires an explanation. Here are some of my guesses.

Certainly the fact that there are so many of us, all more or less cooperating and recording what we are doing in ways that can be preserved for examination by anyone interested, has something to do with it. The fruits of scientific, mathematical and engineering studies from Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Arabian and other ancient cultures were brought together, translated and disseminated hundreds of years ago, and have been being assimilated, improved upon and extended ever since. The rate of increase in understanding is increasing steadily, and has been for centuries. And now over a million people a year, worldwide, complete a college degree in the natural sciences or engineering.

Tools of communication across distance and cultural barriers and time increase more and more rapidly, as do our means of observation and measurement, and our mathematical methods for modeling complex forms and processes. The emergence of English as the universal language of science, technology and commerce may be as important as the development of printing and electronically enhanced ways of communicating and preserving information; and there's no need to theorize about whether the earth is round when anyone can look at the satellite photos themselves. 

From another perspective, perhaps science seems special because it focuses so often on topics that were formerly believed to be beyond the realm of human understanding. When communities used to assign responsibility for important aspects of the natural world to supernatural forces or the whims of gods, maybe that was where the story ended. However, when people began to explore the details of the history of the earth, for example, by thinking logically about what they could see in the rocks, the results were quite amazing. Even such a simple thing as the fact that the rocks on top are younger than the ones below was once an important discovery! 

In other words, scientific knowledge is created by people who are capable of viewing at least some of their current beliefs as beliefs that might possibly be improved. This in itself leads to new combinations of ideas and skills. For example, when Newton began to consider our sun and its planets as a mechanical system, using principles Galileo had developed by studying the movement of objects in his laboratory, together with the elliptical orbits provided by Kepler, the result was quite astounding. However, the ability to think clearly about mechanical systems was no new invention; what was new was applying that clarity to the movements of heavenly bodies.

Mechanical thinking, though, is not the missing "scientific method." Other kinds of problems require other kinds of thinking. Quantum mechanics might just as well be called "quantum no-mechanics," and chaotic phenomena have shocked investigators since Henri Poincaré first discovered them.

Perhaps it's not a particular type of reasoning, but rather flexibility of thinking, that's required whenever science makes real progress in some area. Bertrand Russell once said that in order to really understand anything, one has to be able to "live with an unfinished world view." 

Most of us, most of the time, work very hard to maintain a stable set of beliefs about the various aspects of our world, beliefs that we take for granted as correct. Each individual does this, and groups of people work hard to coordinate their individual versions of what is going on. When something discrepant happens, we automatically create a new version of what happened and then forget that there ever was a discrepancy. (See Hard Facts about Hard Facts, forthcoming, for details.

Groups can hold even more tenaciously to their cherished beliefs than do individuals, and a member trying to push forward a fundamental change in the group's world view is often met with more fear and hostility than would someone who tried to burn the building.

It is quite wonderful when a person can, even for a short time, find a way to set aside this passion for certainty and make room to learn something new. That's only one side of the story, however: Intellectual humility is not something that all scientists have to attain. Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific disciplines go through long periods of "normal science" in which no changes in basic beliefs and assumptions are required. Those who do manage to leave their minds open for a while are not required to keep them open. Even someone who inspired the last revolution may be guarding the gates when it comes time for the next one.

It has been suggested that scientific work is so difficult that one must believe that a theory is correct in order to muster courage and energy to explore the boundaries of the new territory it opens up to view. Eventually, though, there comes a time when at least someone must again be able to consider seriously the possibility that a generally accepted belief may need to be revised.

In summary, what I suspect we're seeing, in the amazing flourishing of modern science, is the gradual accumulation of the effects of a host of improvements in methods of observation and measurement and manipulation of just about anything, along with advancements in math, all made available to ordinary people through improved methods of communication that transcend both distance and time. All of that, occurring in an emerging culture that is coming to respect, or at least tolerate, intellectual humility and independence of thought.

There is no need to postulate an arcane new mode of thinking, a new form of knowledge, or a new breed of human beings to explain how science is able to provide constant improvements in our understanding of ourselves and our world.


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MORE MYTHS ABOUT SCIENCE


Although the complex set of beliefs that I have been calling The Myth of Magical Science is both widespread and harmful, other myths about science abound. This page is already so long that I've used a separate page for detailed discussion of the idea that there is no unique "Scientific Method": 

The Myth of the Magical "Scientific Method"

I'm going to devote separate pages to a number of other myths about science as well. They include such popular notions as that scientists must be (or always are) Objective and Unbiased; and that scientific knowledge is True, Disprovable (Testable), Publicly Verifiable, and Statistical. 

Two pages focus on the notion that science produces a special, superior type of knowledge. The Terrible Truth about Truth reveals how common views about science are based on false assumptions about the nature of truth and the nature of evidence, and will recommend that we completely give up the idea of "truth" as the goal of science, replacing it with the idea of continually improving understanding. 

Another page, "Hard Facts about Hard Facts," (forthcoming) will discuss evidence that the "hard facts," which the so-called "scientific method" is said to depend on, are neither solid nor permanent.

Another popular myth about science is the belief that the special scientific method can never be used to study certain "metaphysical" topics, which are considered to be intrinsically "unscientific." Pseudo - Science or Proto - Science? exposes the arrogance of claiming that an entire field of interest is "unscientific" or "pseudo - science" when the people who criticize it have never actually studied it.


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RESOURCES
Books -- Videos -- Web Sites -- Image Credits -- Language Credits


Web Resources

WWW Virtual Library: History of Science, Technology & Medicine

History of Science Links

19th Century Scientific American Home Page

Nobel Prize Internet Archive

The MacTutor History of Mathematics archive

"On Scientific Method" by Percy W. Bridgman

Florence Nightingale on The Web

Statistical Links -- Women in Mathematics

Country Joe McDonald's Tribute to Florence Nitingale

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Books

Links are to amazon.com listings, where the books are reviewed by readers, and can be ordered online. (We receive a small commission on items you order through these links.)

James Burke; The Day the Universe Changed.

Ellen Doris; Doing What Scientists Do: Children Learn to Investigate Their World.

Eleanor Duckworth; 'The Having of Wonderful Ideas' & Other Essays on Teaching & Learning.

Thomas S. Kuhn; The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Steven Pinker; How the Mind Works.

Kurt Suplee; Physics in the 20th Century.



Videos

Great Minds of Science - Series (1997).



Image Credits

I chose this image to emphasize the importance in scientific work of the learning skills that human beings share with other animals. Efforts, by certain philosophers of science, to show how scientific knowledge is different from (and superior to) other types of knowledge leave them with no way of understanding how scientific work enhances our ability to understand ourselves and our world.

The joy evident in the picture recalls the fact that emotions -- curiosity, excitement, and joy, for example -- powerfully influence learning, even in science.

I'd like to know the source of this image.



Language Credits

Singular 'they' -- The gender neutral pronoun problem is not a problem: "they" as third person singular is perfectly "good" English. See The Word on the Street: Fact and Fable About American English by John McWhorter.


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