Is scientific thinking like reading comprehension?

E.D. Hirsch recently wrote a great review of Diane Ravitch’s last book on education reform.* In his review, Hirsch discussed some of his more controversial ideas on reading comprehension. Whereas most education schools stress strategies and process, Hirsch believes that comprehension depends primarily on background knowledge. No amount of key words and phrases will help you get through this article about the Falcons’ quarterback if you don’t understand professional football. Consider this paragraph towards the end:

Atlanta’s offense never really had a chance to get off the ground last year. The Falcons lost receiver Harry Douglas to injury early in training camp. Running back Michael Turner struggled early in the season and, just when he started getting on track, he suffered an ankle injury that hobbled him for about half the season. Backup Jerious Norwood also was banged up and the Falcons suffered several injuries across the offensive line.

It’s not enough to have a good vocabulary and reading tricks up your sleeve. You really need to know football. The words receiver, training camp, running back, season, backup and offensive line are meaningless otherwise. As Hirsch put it, “verbal ability is not, as the schools wrongly assumed, simply a how-to skill. It is largely a knowledge-based skill.” The upshot of all this is that a content-rich curriculum is really the only way to teach reading comprehension. For more on this, read Hirsch’s book (still on my reading list!) or check out his Core Knowledge Foundation.

While I’ve known about Hirsch’s work for a while, this recent article really sparked my thinking. Is scientific thinking similar to reading comprehension? The routine calls for better scientific reasoning tend to emphasize a way of thinking rather than specific knowledge.** But is it even possible to reason about a subject you know nothing about? I used to believe it was, but now I’m not so sure.

I’ve argued repeatedly that only IPCC scientists should discuss global warming. So I’d be a little inconsistent if I now said that your average Jane reason her way to understanding the issue. We might be promoting exactly the wrong message when we insist students should know how to “think scientifically.” We might be better off if we said that thinking scientifically is meaningless unless you know physics and chemistry.

* For those of you not steeped in education policy, here’s some background. Ravitch is arguably the most important and influential education historian of the past century. She originally supported both No Child Left Behind and charter schools before recanting those views in her last book. It’s caused quite a stir.
** My girlfriend Steph reliably informs me that science education professors debate content vs. process all the time. This debate doesn’t get much attention.