Discovering the rules of the universe has been an arduous process. We humans interact with a very narrow portion of reality. We only get to feel the tiny region of realty that sits high above the molecules and far below the stars.
We took a garden path on the road to discovery. We took many a detour, lingering for centuries before reality finally turned us back.
The journey was slow and arduous, but it worked. Inch by inch, we began to understand this strange and beautiful place.
Yet we gained our knowledge at a slow, meandering pace. Do not delude yourself into thinking that the order we discovered science is the order we should teach it.
We discovered science backwards. We started from the middle and we’re still working our way towards the ends. We spent decades mired in confusion. We made bad assumptions and were diverted for centuries at a time. Even in modernity, science has been led astray for decades upon decades.
We have been very confused by our models before, and it often takes a long time to for us to make sense of what’s actually going on.
Once we figure it out, everything falls into place. It all looks simple in retrospect. It fits cleanly into textbooks. Everyone who spent thirty years confused shouts “eureka!” and it feels like a great mystery was solved.
But there was no mystery. Nothing has been solved. Mystery is not a property of reality. The mystery was in the minds of the scientist, who were looking at reality backwards. The mystery was latent in their misinterpretation of the universe.
And yet, that’s not what it feels like to them. To them, it feels like a great confusion has been resolved. They jump to immortalize their victory in the textbooks, to tell the tale of the Horrible Confusion and its Brilliant Conclusion.
Every teacher loves to drag their students through the ritual mire, confusing the students with baffling data and surprising them with counter-intuitive answers. And so the confusions spread and proliferate.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Once we solve a mystery, we shouldn’t teach it.
Reality is not a mysterious place. Mysteries are not a reflection of reality: they are a lesson in how little we understood.
When we solve a mystery, we learn the truth, but we also learn many other things. We learn from our mistakes. We learn how the mystery happened. We learn how our broken worldview led us astray. We learn to discard assumptions that we didn’t even realize we made.
These are the most important things. When we solve a mystery, we don’t just learn the solution to the mystery: we learn how to better understand reality on its own terms.
Teach that to students. Long before they encounter your great mystery, address their false assumptions. Train them to notice the fallacies that led history astray. Fix their intuitions before they know that they’re broken. Demonstrate their bias before they have a chance to succumb.
Don’t limit these lessons to the sciences. Students don’t need scientific aspirations in order to learn how to hear the truth. They don’t need to be a physicist to benefit from better intuitions. Everyone alive can benefit from overcoming bias.
So don’t teach the mysteries: fix the assumptions that caused the mystery in the first place. Then, when students come across the stumbling blocks of old, they will be prepared. They will not trip. They will not need to take the garden path.
If we do our jobs right, the ancient mysteries won’t seem mysterious. They won’t even seem hard. They’ll just be intuitive.