It was fifth grade. Science period. There were two teachers responsible for the entire herd of fifth-graders, so they were not specialized in any particular field. Just give the kids a general idea of all the subjects, and the specialists will fill their heads later. Our teacher relied heavily on the veracity of the textbooks we were provided.
I remember this day well. I was sitting over on the right side of the classroom. The goal of the exercise was to understand the Scientific Method. I capitalized Scientific Method in the previous sentence because understanding it is really friggin’ important. It’s how we got here, for better or for worse.
The textbook chose Bernoulli’s Principle (these days, the press would doggedly refer to it as Bernoulli’s Theory, and imply that it might not be true even as planes passed overhead) as the Nugget of Knowledge that we, as young scientists, would ferret out through a process of forming a theory and putting it to the test experimentally or through observations of the world, then revising or scrapping the theory if the test did not yield the expected results. (The revising and scrapping parts were not included in this exercise, which is too bad, because it’s the fundamental strength of science.)
For me, as the evidence was exposed in the pages of the text, it was a puzzle to solve. A race with my fellow students to get the answer. Halfway through the lesson my hand shot up, and when recognized I gave the “right answer”. I recapitulated Bernoulli. I was a little disappointed by the teacher’s reaction. I had the right answer, but the important thing was how we got to the right answer. That’s what the scientific method is all about.
But even before the glow of my triumph was diminished by the cool reaction of the teacher, I was bothered. My gut told me that one of the key pieces of evidence cited by the textbook was, in fact, bogus. But it was a SCIENCE BOOK. It was right. It had to be.
The false evidence: You know how when you’re in the shower the dang shower curtain will assault you, pushing into the tub and wrapping around your leg? That was presented in this little science exercise as evidence of Bernoulli’s Principle. Even in fifth grade, even as I read that supposed clue to bring me to a conclusion I had long since surmised, it wasn’t working for me.
For years hence I thought of mechanisms where the rushing shower water got the air moving around it, lowering the pressure on this side of the curtain. But that would have required noticeable wind.
Yet, I continued to believe that shower curtains assaulted one because of Bernoulli’s Principle. The science book said so. I tried to make the water-coupling-with-air theory work. As I showered I tried to measure air flow. I held my hand next to the curtain on many occasions, forming explanations for why I couldn’t feel the wind. If I couldn’t come up with the explanation, that was my failure, not the theory’s. Um, principle’s.
The fact is, shower curtain assault has nothing to do with Bernoulli’s Principle. It’s convection. Finally I had to accept that my Science Book had been just plain wrong. It took many years to get there.
So here’s the true lesson about Scientific Method afforded me that day, one that took me years and years to learn: Don’t invent complicated explanations for why the other guy is right, when there’s a better answer in front of your face. Then prove the better answer. Proving the better answer is a step that a lot of our ‘science rebels’ miss. The actual science part. They deserve every bit as much disbelief as the mainstream guys do.