Introduction for Teacher:
The scope of science is a topic not well understood by the general public or the starting student of science. The recent artificial “controversy” in the media of Intelligent Design (ID) has further confused the issue for students. This lesson plan communicates two important concepts in science: (1) that science seeks non-supernatural explanations, and (2) that all ideas must be testable, either through experiment or through observation.
It is worth nothing that the term “testability” is not generally used by scientists or epistemologists (philosophers who study how we know things). The term used more often is “falsifiability” – the concept that it must be possible to design an experiment or observation which could potentially prove the hypothesis incorrect. However, students easily confuse the term falsifiability with thinking that the hypothesis has already been proven false. “Testability” is a nearly equivalent concept, and is easier to understand and explain.
It is suggested that the teacher of this lesson either watch or read a summary of the science-fiction/action movie The Matrix. The central premise of the movie is that the world that we are familiar with is actually a virtual reality based in a futuristic computer, in a world ruled by computer programs and robots. The main character, Neo, is awakened from the Matrix by a group of rebels, and seeks to wake others in a massive revolution. There are also heavy Messianic overtones, so you may need to guide the lesson away from that aspect.
After completing this lesson, students will understand the concept of testability, will better grasp the scope and limitations of science, and what questions can be addressed by science.
Students should have paper and writing implements.
Teacher should be able to write on the board.
While designed for a single 90-minute period, this lesson may be adapted to longer, shorter, or multiple class periods.
Teacher Introduction (10 min, 0:00-0:10):
Ask students how many of them have seen the movie The Matrix. Have them describe the premise of the story. Guide conversation to the concept of being trapped in a virtual reality.
Student Groups (20 min, 0:10-0:30):
Break students into pairs or trios. Ask them how they could determine whether we are currently living in the Matrix. Have one member of each group record their thoughts. The teacher should walk around the classroom observing student interactions and making sure they remain on-task.
Whole Class (20 min, 0:30-0:50):
Students return to the larger class group and share their ideas. Keep the discussion focused on methods for testing whether we are in the Matrix. Do NOT yet poke holes in their ideas, simply list them all on the board.
Student Groups (20min, 0:50-1:10):
Return to small groups. Each group is now tasked with examining the many ideas on the board and finding their flaws. Focus the students on whether the different ideas are testable – can they experiment to answer the idea?
If the idea was “wake from the Matrix,” ask how they’d do that. If the idea was “watch for black cats,” ask if every black cat means that we’re in the Matrix, and what would white cats mean. If the idea was to hack into the Matrix through a phone line, ask them who they think can do that. (If this becomes a big issue, contact a local computer science or telecommunications expert at a college, or phone company and ask them if they will write a letter to your class or come speak with them.)
Whole Class (20 min, 1:10-1:30):
Discuss the flaws in the various ideas. Conclude with a summary of the scope of science – that it is concerned with only testable ideas, and explanations that do not require supernatural explanations (including technology greatly beyond that which we know).
Students’ understanding can be assessed during discussion, while walking around the classroom, or by collecting and reviewing their written ideas.
Students may also write reaction papers at the end of the period, or as a homework assignment. Students can also be assigned a longer project to seek out community resources (college professors, phone company technicians or operators) to discuss science related to The Matrix.
Adaptation for Students with Special Needs:
Students with writing difficulties can be grouped with those with better writing skills.
Students with high energy (such as ADHD) can be appointed as Professional Skeptics. Their task is to go between the regular pairs and groups of students and question what they have written in each stage. They could also be used to write student ideas on the board when discussing as a whole class.
If you have difficulty stimulating discussion with your students, try the following questions to get them started.
- What is the Matrix?
- Did you like the movie?
- Do you think it was believable?
- Are we in the Matrix?
- How do you know?
- Can you test that?
- What could you see that would prove or disprove it?
- If you can’t test that, who could?
- Did you ever think that a friend was trying to trick you, or was lying to you?
- How could you prove it?
- How would you know if you were wrong?
- If a friend said you were trying to trick or were lying to him or her, how could you disprove it?
- Did you ever think you might be living in a dream?