Adventures in Ethics and Science

Over at Effect Measure, Revere takes issue with a science educator’s hand-wringing over what science students (and scientists) don’t know. In a piece at The Scientist, James Williams (the science educator in question) writes:

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?

Revere responds:

Mr. Williams seems to be under the impression that these extremely difficult foundational issues [e.g., the precise relationships between facts, hypotheses, theories, and laws, the solution to the demarcation problem, etc.] are settled and should be common knowledge for all scientists.

Revere does a nice job of taking Williams to task for bemoaning the ignorance of science trainees and scientists about issues on which Williams himself seems a little shaky. You should, as they say, read the whole thing.

However, I have to take issue with this:

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.”

Actually, my disagreement with Revere here is small.

I agree that scientific literacy does not require that you have precise definitions of the necessary and sufficient conditions for X being a fact, or for Y being a theory, or for Z being scientific. However, I think it probably should involve being able to say something about what kind of thing might make you prefer one theory to another, being able to explain how the facts scientists try to get their hands on differ from hopes or opinions, being able to identify some of the crucial differences between explanations that fall squarely on the “science” side of the line and those that are well into “keep your hands on your wallet, this smells like snake-oil” territory.

I agree that scientific literacy involves getting a feel for experimental method, logic, the uses of observation and sources of random and systematic error. I’m not convinced, however, that teaching the content of modern science is sufficient to give students that feel. Especially when students are tested primarily on their recall of the facts, they have a habit of walking away with the impression that this is all that science is: a pile of facts to be memorized.

At least for audiences who haven’t already decided on science as a career path (or burning passion), I think shifting the focus slightly from the content of modern science to the strategies practitioners of modern science use to build knowledge probably does more to help those audiences become scientifically literate. This means getting a little “meta” in your presentation of the content, bringing up methodological questions that, if followed to their logical conclusion, take you to the door of the philosophy department. Happily, getting reflective about questions like “how could we test this hypothesis?” or “how could we be mistaken about this conclusion?” doesn’t commit you to the full philosophical work-up.

Revere writes:

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.

The thing is, I think science students — especially those who have never really thought of becoming scientists — are more like students at a swimming lesson. To learn to swim — or even to keep their heads above the water — they don’t need mastery of hydrodynamics. However, if the folks trying to teach them how to swim know a little bit about how to help them feel at home in the water, that’s bound to help.

Comments

  1. #1 Alex
    October 16, 2008

    I’m not convinced, however, that teaching the content of modern science is sufficient to give students that feel. Especially when students are tested primarily on their recall of the facts, they have a habit of walking away with the impression that this is all that science is: a pile of facts to be memorized.

    Agreed.

    However, there are some pedagogical dilemmas: Even if you try to teach science as something other than a pile of facts, and emphasize reasoning, problem-solving skills, etc., there’s still a gulf between teaching students to apply knowledge (through reasoning instead of memorization) and teaching them how new knowledge is uncovered and tested. For instance, physics class that focuses on derivations of equations may show how we reason things through to uncover results, but it may not be conducive to understanding of results.

  2. #2 revere
    October 16, 2008

    Janet: I don’t disagree with your (small) disagreement. I meant to include the habits of critical thinking in the content of science. As scientists that’s part of what we do, even though we can’t give a coherent explication of it much of the time. Science is not just a pile of facts. At least I don’t think so, because I’m not completely sure what a “fact” is. And that’s a fact.

  3. #3 Comrade PhysioProf
    October 17, 2008

    I’d just like these little fuckers to learn how to design a proper set of goddamn experimental controls!!!! AIIEIEIEIEIEIEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. #4 Robert Bird
    October 17, 2008

    What is this “control” thing you speak of? I thought I just try my drugXXXXsupplement, and if it does what I claim (or even if it doesn’t), I’m golden. I didn’t even think I needed to know how to spell placebo properly.

  5. #5 freelunch
    October 17, 2008

    I would say that high school science student who at graduation can develop a hypothesis that is consistent with known evidence, create a proper test of the hypothesis, and describe how to develop a replacement hypothesis when the test results are different from expectation has learned what science is and how to do it.