A piece online in The Scientist is an example of silly handwringing by science educators. James Williams, who describes himself as a science educator who trains science graduates to become science teachers, despairs because most trainee teachers he teaches don’t have a clue about what makes science “science.” He has been surveying them and reports:
Over the past two years I’ve surveyed their understanding of key terminology and my findings reveal a serious problem. Graduates, from a range of science disciplines and from a variety of universities in Britain and around the world, have a poor grasp of the meaning of simple terms and are unable to provide appropriate definitions of key scientific terminology. So how can these hopeful young trainees possibly teach science to children so that they become scientifically literate? How will school-kids learn to distinguish the questions and problems that science can answer from those that science cannot and, more importantly, the difference between science and pseudoscience? (The Scientist)
Mr. Willliams thinks this is bad news. He correctly surmises the problem isn’t confined to trainees. Most scientists also can’t properly say what distinguishes science from pseudoscience, say what a fact is, give a satisfying rendition of what a theory is, etc. The problem is that Mr. Williams can’t do it either, because there is no agreement on these knotty matters. He seems to think these are simple and settled questions. But finding adequate criteria that separate science from pseudoscience, the so-called Demarcation Problem, remains an unsettled question in the philosophy of science. It is so difficult, and possibly so fruitless, that many philosophers have ceased to be concerned with it. Similarly, what is a “fact”?
- 76% equated a fact with ‘truth’ and ‘proven’.
- 23% defined a theory as ‘unproven ideas’ with less than half (47%) recognizing a theory as a well evidenced exposition of a natural phenomenon.
- 34% defined a law as a rule not to be broken, and forty-one percent defined it as an idea that science fully supports..
- Definitions of ‘hypothesis’ were the most consistent, with 61% recognizing the predictive, testable nature of hypotheses.
The results show a lack of understanding of what scientific theories and laws are. And the nature of a ‘fact’ in science was not commonly understood, with only 11% defining a fact as evidence or data.
Mr. Williams’s lack of sophistication here is breathtaking although hardly surprising. A wag once commented (and I have quoted here often) that to expect a scientist to understand the philosophy of science is like expecting a fish to understand hydrodynamics. I guess the same thing goes for science educators, although it is less excusable. Mr. Williams seems to be under the impression that these extremely difficult foundational issues are settled and should be common knowledge for all scientists.
This is not to say that there aren’t obvious misunderstandings, things that are clearly wrong. A scientific theory is not just a collection of yet unproven ideas (whatever it means to “prove” things in any area outside of logic). But alas it is much easier to say what is the wrong thing than to safely assert what is the right thing. Here’s the difference:
Here’s why these responses are problematic: Given the numerous news stories that require an understanding of how science operates – global warming, cloning, the possible dangers posed by cell phones or the pros and cons of genetically modified crops – understanding the difference between a fully fledged scientific theory that is backed by evidence and accepted by the scientific community and a speculative guess is essential. If we, as scientists, cannot teach children what these words mean in a scientific context, how can we hope to improve scientific literacy generally? If science graduates are confused to begin with, then it is an uphill battle.
I can agree with the first sentence and not the second. There is certainly a difference between “a fully fledged scientific theory that is backed by evidence and accepted by the scientific community and a speculative guess” but it isn’t demonstrated by teaching children the philosophy of science. Most scientists are quite competent in doing science even though they aren’t versed in the philosophical arguments about what it is they are doing. If they bothered with those questions most would likely become paralyzed.
Scientific literacy is about teaching the content of modern science. That naturally entails the rudiments of experimental method, logic, the uses of observation and sources of random and systematic error. It does not mean you have to have a good definition of what a “fact” is or the status of theories versus models or what makes something “scientific.” The only people who think it is possible to teach those things to scientists and science students are people who themselves have a poor grasp of what is involved.
Unfortunately, as science educators go, I don’t think Mr. Williams is unusual.