Science is not a Body of Knowledge

A brief story from my youth that taught me a lesson about science...

A typical “internet argument” recently reminded me of a story.

When I was a little kid, I was really interested in astronomy. I had a huge poster of the solar system on my wall. I loved it, and read everything I could get my hands on.

I recall a specific instance in which we were studying the planets of our solar system in an elementary school science class. Later that week, the following question was on a test:

“How many moons does Jupiter have?” I answered “17” and was marked wrong.

I went to the teacher and said “Why is this wrong? Jupiter has 17 moons.”

The teacher said “No, Jupiter has 14 moons” and showed me the page in the textbook showing 14 moons. I was really confused, because I had just read a wonderful picture-filled article from National Geographic about the Voyager missions, and it said 17.1 I could even name them in order of distance from the planet.

Turns out the text book was published the same year I was born.

The really frustrating part? The grade stuck– the teacher argued that I was supposed to learn the “fact” that was in the textbook, and was unswayed by my argument that it was incorrect. Obviously, most teachers (particularly science teachers) would not have been so stupid– indeed, most of my later science teachers did not have that mindset. However, it illustrates my main point nicely: Science is not a body of knowledge. It’s not a list of facts. It’s a method of inquiry. Trying to teach it as a bunch of unchanging facts is folly.

  1. As of now, we are aware of 67 Jovian moons.