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Zendo as a tool for teaching the scientific method

November 2, 2011

Frankenstein Doing Science

Though I have a near-psychotic obsession with games and game design, I’m also dimly aware games are mostly idle pastimes. I wish it weren’t so, because it’s uncomfortable to be so possessed by something so frivolous.

Thank goodness then that once in a while a game appears with real-life value beyond diversion. This essay is about one such game, called Zendo. In fact Zendo has more real-life value than any other game I know, because it is, bar none, the best method I’ve ever come across for teaching science and scientific thinking. I want more people to understand what an important learning tool this game is.

When a kid first learns about science in school, she usually doesn’t actually learn science. Instead her teacher makes her memorize a collection of trivia and calls it science. Then the kid gets bored and stops caring. That’s how it was for me anyway.

This guy's pretty much the embodiment of science education as I experienced it

Anyone? Anyone?

I didn’t appreciate science until I was older and began educating myself outside school. Only then did I realize science isn’t lifeless trivia, but rather it’s a method and an art, like playing the violin, and by mastering it you can do near-miraculous things, like change the way we view reality or fix intractable problems.

When I finally understood this, I was intoxicated and I never looked back, and I eventually became a scientist. I wonder how many others would catch the same fever without the misconceptions of grade-school.

I also wonder how many more scientists-in-training would have a better clue about how to do science. Imagine if early violin training consisted mostly of discussions about the violin. How many great violinists would there be? Not many.

Yet that’s how we train young scientists, even undergrads. Sure, we hold labs for students, but a) they’re infrequent, like playing the violin once a week; and b) they don’t really nurture inductive reasoning or experimental design skills – they’re often just recipes to turn some solution red or whatever, which have little to do with real scientific thought.

Lucky for us, there’s a way to practice the scientific method, rigorously, at any level, from kindergarten to post-grad and beyond, on a table top without pricey equipment:

Zendo – the scientific method in a box

First, an overview of the game, in which I’ve taken the liberty of re-theming it as an exercise in the scientific method (the original theme is some Buddhist-sounding mumbo jumbo having nothing to do with real Buddhism):

Let’s say we have three players (the minimum number).

To begin, one player (let’s call him The Universe) secretly invents a law of nature. The law describes the conditions under which an arrangement of objects on a table are to be marked with a white stone, or a black stone. Here’s a simple example law: “If the arrangement contains at least 3 objects, then it’s marked with a white stone. Otherwise it’s marked with a black stone.” The objects are usually acrylic pyramids of different colors and sizes (see picture below – buy them here), but they can be anything: Legos, wooden blocks, coins, even words on paper.

icehouse-pyramids-zendo-pieces

Players take turns – Then, the other two players (let’s call them Scientists) take turns doing experiments. Each Scientist sets up an experiment. The experiment takes the form of an arrangement of objects on a table. The outcome of the experiment is either a black or white stone which the universe places next to it, according to the secret law of nature.

Experimental results accumulate – As the game proceeds, experimental results build up on the table. The more there are, the more information the Scientists have about the law of nature.

Scientists state hypotheses – Finally, Scientists can earn the right to make guesses (hypotheses) about what the law of nature is. When a Scientist states a hypothesis, the universe must create an experimental counterexample which disproves it, or else that Scientist wins.

I’ve left out a few details (you can read the full rules here), but that’s all you need to know to follow my points below. In summary, Scientists do experiments, observe the results, and based on those results, make up hypotheses about the law of nature, which are disproved if they’re wrong.

The sequence of events mimics the real scientific method well (with one exception to which I’ll return at the end). Here’s the great thing: key dimensions of real science also emerge in the game. Here are four:

Ambiguous Hypotheses – Sometimes, a Scientist will state an unclear hypothesis. In this case, the Universe must ask for clarification to construct a counterexample. This is one of the central problems of real science too: how to construct testable hypotheses? Zendo’s a forum in which to practice the necessary language skills.

Superstitions based on spurious correlations – Sometimes, thanks to the Scientists’ experimental choices, a pattern of white and black stones builds up on the table which all conform to an incorrect hypothesis about the law of nature. This is how real Scientists get stuck too. And just like in real science, they can only get get unstuck by finding an experimental counterexample to the incorrect hypothesis, at which point the Scientists undergo a “Paradigm Shift”. Paradigm Shifts also happen when new investigators without the usual biases (who can interpret experimental results in a new way) enter the field. For this reason it’s said that science proceeds by retirements (the older biased Scientists retire and make way for new and differently-biased ones). In Zendo, the same thing happens when someone who’s not even playing walks by the table, glances at the experiments, and points out a hypothesis that the players missed due to group-think. It makes clear the value of fresh perspective and independent thinking.

The value of simple, systematic experimentation -  In Zendo, it helps if Scientists do experiments in series, where each experiment differs only slightly from the last. This allows Scientists to quickly pinpoint the variables that matter. Scientists also learn to minimize the number of variables in each experiment, to minimize the chance for spurious correlations as described in point 2 above. These are essential practices for real Scientists.

The value of Occam’s Razor – Scientists quickly learn how to make their hypotheses as simple as possible, because then it’s easy to interpret the counterexamples that disprove them. The more parts a hypothesis has, the harder it is to infer from a counterexample what part is wrong.

These are the fundamentals of the scientific method, and Zendo presents them as no real-life lab exercise ever could, because it presents them free of the distracting technical details of real-life experiments. There’s no faster or clearer way to learn them.

You can make the law of nature as easy or as hard as you want. Playing as the Universe, I’ve made laws which are easy for nine-year olds and I’ve stumped Ph.D.s. The game matches your skill level, like the exercises through which one progresses in violin training.

Further: it’s not very competitive. There’s usually much table-talk, and the players feel they’re collaborating rather than competing, which is good for learning.

I alluded earlier to a way in which Zendo fails to mimic real science. Here it is: in real science, the universe doesn’t magically construct counterexamples to your hypotheses, nor does it tell when you when your hypotheses are correct. So a real Scientist can never be sure that a hypothesis is right. There might always be a counterexample just around the corner, but he might be too stupid to find it. If there’s one thing that frustrates me about science, that’s it.

It’s a good thing that Zendo doesn’t work that way – it’s a simulation of the good stuff without the bad, which makes it easier to see what’s great about science. The caveats can come later.

I can’t emphasize enough that Zendo isn’t just a way to train Scientists. It’s a way to improve thinking generally, which can make life better. Example: A few years ago I developed a debilitating health problem which doctors weren’t able to diagnose or treat. Left to fend for myself, I was able to relieve the condition by the application of the scientific method over about 2 years. Had I not been so steeped in the scientific method, I might not even be here now. That’s how valuable it is.

If I had a child I’d play a lot of Zendo with her. If you have a child, you should too. If you need to throw out the science texts to make time, do it. The facts are fish. Don’t give your kid a fish. Teach her how to fish.

Nick Bentley

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