Adventures in Ethics and Science

This just came up in a plenary session I’m attending, looking at how best to convey the nature of science in K-12 science education (roughly ages 5-18).

It’s not really a question about the content of the instruction, which people here seem pretty comfortable saying should include stuff about scientific methodology and critical testing, analysis and interpretation of data, hypothesis and prediction, what kind of certainty science can achieve, and so forth. Rather, it’s a question about how that content is organized and framed.

It was proposed by one of the people in the room that an explicit goal of science education should be to combat anti-science — to knock down the efforts to undercut the authority of science in various discussions in the public sphere or to reduce science to just one voice among many, with no special claim to authority.

Do you think this ought to be an explicit goal driving the curriculum?

Do you think that an adequate response to anti-science falls naturally out of a well-organized (and well-taught) science curriculum organized around other goals (like, say, understanding the process by which scientific knowledge is built and tested)?

Do you think there are any dangers looming if you make the central goal of science education combating the forces of anti-science?

Comments

  1. #1 D. C. Sessions
    June 19, 2009

    Do you think there are any dangers looming if you make the central goal of science education combating the forces of anti-science?

    Absolutely. Mind you, that will be an effect of any good science education program, but if you make it a primary objective you will almost certainly end up losing sight of the forest for the trees. Which is exactly what’s happening in secondary education already: classes dance around in the “leaves” of the Tree of Knowledge without ever approaching the trunk or roots.

    The same thing is happening in mathematics (see the recent essay, “A Mathematician’s Lament.”) We’re teaching the mechanics of mathematics without ever introducing kids to its heart and soul.

    Teach kids what science is about: the search for understanding, bearing in mind our human fallibilities and biases, doing as well as we can to compensate for them. It’s a noble effort, and not something reserved for tenured faculty in research universities — and it’s not a gigantic table of unconnected facts, which is all too often how it’s taught.

    When kids see that science is an instructive dialog with the Universe and that those facts have stories behind them, it’s almost trivial to introduce anti-science as a proposed hypothesis and walk through the process of evaluating it. In fact, that should be a repeating part of the curriculum. Start with historical bogosity, but by all means let them pick contemporary bogosity out of a list for term papers and other assignments.

  2. #2 bob koepp
    June 19, 2009

    The presentation of science to inquiring young minds should not have explicit political goals — that’s not science, after all. Much better, I think, is to let the satisfaction that comes from understanding the “how” of things speak for itself.

    But I also want to step back from the political question and say that I think the most effective way to teach science to newbies is to adopt an historical approach, and to emphasize hands-on experimentation. Replicating a number of “strings and sealing wax” experiments that shaped the course of science is well within the means of most schools, and fun for the experimenters.

  3. #3 Academic
    June 19, 2009

    Combating the forces of anti-science leads science education in our schools into little more than clash of ideology. Moreover such an orientation in school science reinforces that some people cannot be scientists, owing to identity features of those people.

    I would much rather that students get a taste of what it means to do science as opposed to what it means to do politics. Yes, I know science has political repercussions, but those repercussions come from a desire to do science.

  4. #4 Kate
    June 19, 2009

    I do think a goal of science education should be to demonstrate that science is not ideology — that is, that science is the gathering of knowledge, the creation of understanding where there was ignorance, and the observation of naturally-occurring phenomena. Science is not religion. Science is not politics. But science is used and misused and blatantly misunderstood to further religious and political goals. I think this makes it necessary for science education to have explicit conversations not just about how to do science, but why we do science, what science has meant historically, and how it is used and misused. I wouldn’t say we need to have a goal of fighting anti-science. What I would say is that that is a conversation we shouldn’t avoid with our students, and it should happen alongside the critical thinking piece (scientific method etc).

    I suspect many great science teachers avoid these conversations because they are afraid they will look too political, or they might share their political views. But our personal and political views color everything we do. Why not be honest about it? Why not open things up? Why not risk getting your kids in a big ole fight with each other? I think avoiding these things only creates more opportunities for abusers of science to get their tentacles in young people.

    /2 cents

  5. #5 becca
    June 19, 2009

    I wouldn’t be concerned with any particular counter-anti-science strategy. Certain angles might cause more backlash then persuade people, so there is some risk (though whether this is intrinsic to addressing specific anti-science positions, or just likely to come out of most emotionally-charged debates about e.g. creationism, I don’t know).
    No science education (no education period) is complete without a recognition of the importance of, and some practice in asking, the question “how do you know that?”

  6. #6 JM Caldaro
    June 19, 2009

    I have been a secondary science teacher and administrator for more than 30 years. It is absolutely necessary to follow the above recommendations for teaching what science is about and how it has achieved what it has over the last several hundred years. Hands on experiences are exciting and draw students into the process. But it is very difficult for even bright and engaged students to differentiate bad science from good science. I believe it is very important to incorporate an analysis of bad science and why it does not follow the process of scientific methodology. The many current examples such as climate change, evolution, oil reserves and energy needs and satisfying those needs, autism and vaccinations, are very complex. At least one of these controversies should be looked at in detail.

    If you have not seen the documentary “A Flock of Dodos” I recommend you do to see how science is losing the popular war between evolution and Creationism/Intelligent Design.

  7. #7 abb3w
    June 20, 2009

    Do you think there are any dangers looming if you make the central goal of science education combating the forces of anti-science?

    Heading the list: accusations of establishing Science as a religion and using the public schools to attack other Religions.

    I don’t know that “combating anti-science” is a good approach at this time. The more fundamental question that should be asked first for illumination is, “Why ought we teach science at all? What do we hope to achieve thereby, and why do we expect that teaching science will help achieve it?”

    To this, I would be inclined to indicate that science allows engineering; which is to say, use of knowledge (obtained by science) to evaluate selection of goals and prospective means to their achievement. (Ergo, this comment is a crude form of engineering using the science of sociology; and further, almost all human choices are also engineering… of varying levels of ineptness.) In the broadest expression of the term “Science”, it has historically proven an exceedingly powerful tool for these ends. A philosophical case might even be made that it is the optimal one… but that’s not necessary to the core point that science is USEFUL. And, since it is a key useful tool in modern society, that like language and mathematics all students should learn how to use it as best they can.

    There is also the question of what we mean by Science. I would say that “Science” refers to a collection of philosophical discipline, anthropological practice, and body of information resulting therefrom. At present, learning how to recognize what is and is not science (in which of these senses, and why) seems more realistically achievable than “combat”, and less likely to directly trigger political conflict.

    And, of course, this might be doable in a self-reflective way. In the anthropological sense of science, “what is science” may be addressed as question of the science of anthropology; in the philosophical sense, similarly as a question of philosophy of science. And, of course, there’s a body of knowledge for both (EG: Popper, Kuhn, Reichenbach). In turn, learning to recognize what things are “science” and in which senses will lead to the ability to recognize which things are NOT science… incidentally, combating the forces of anti-science.

    How much of this can be done at the K-12 level, I don’t know. Some of it certainly can; and the curriculum should also emphasize that what is covered are starting points, not the absolute final end. (Another point that generally ought be emphasized more in science classes, methinks.)

  8. #8 Pat Cahalan
    June 20, 2009

    > Do you think there are any dangers looming
    > if you make the central goal of science
    > education combating the forces of anti-science?

    Well, for starters, you can’t prove a negative, so you’re setting yourself up for a long haul, there.

    The central goal of science education should be to reinforce the underlying axioms of science: that the universe operates according to a set of rules, those rules can be derived by observation of empirical evidence, and that exposing phenomena to observation enables further collection of evidence and thus better understanding of the rules.

    Attacking anti-science should only take place in those contexts, and only where the conflicts occur. Far too often people can conclude that “that which is not science” is “anti-science”, which simply is not true.

  9. #9 D. C. Sessions
    June 20, 2009

    What do we hope to achieve thereby, and why do we expect that teaching science will help achieve it?”

    To this, I would be inclined to indicate that science allows engineering;

    Speaking as an engineer (and conceding the marketing utility of a utilitarian approach) I would counter that the reason for teaching science, especially at the secondary school level, is the same as the reason for teaching art, music, history, etc: because it’s part of being a minimally-educated person in the 21st century.

    Without at least a basic grounding in science, citizens are excluded from informed participation in our society. Since preparing children to be informed citizens is the most basic charter of our public schools, we need to teach kids science, not “science facts.” Anything less and they lack the essential context to understand the news.

  10. #10 Jordan
    June 20, 2009

    this is a very intriguing question – i think the answer is, it must be both. In general i think people need to learn basic content, about the process of scientific inquiry, the (tentative and uncertain) epistemological status of scientific knowledge produced, how to communicate ideas in a clear and concise manner, but more important: people need to develop an skeptical and scientific disposition towards knowledge and factual claims so they can be intelligent consumers of information and able to detect and combat pseudoscience like intelligent design, astrology, ESP, and other scams like psychics, John Edwards, etc.

  11. #11 janetlc
    June 20, 2009

    As a homeschooling mom, I feel like combatting anti-science is a very important part of my job as a teacher. But, I think there are two important caveats here:

    1) I am only teaching my own kids, so I don’t have to worry about showing tolerance for differing religions in my “class.”

    2) Some of my kids’ peers are getting their science from the Discovery Institute, so they will be encountering Intelligent Design at an age where they don’t really have the sophistication to see the problems of this without guidance from an adult.

  12. #12 Jim Thomerson
    June 20, 2009

    After some years of teaching university-level General Education biology courses, I came up with these goals: (1) the student understands that biology is important, and (2) the student thinks biology is interesting. I do like a historical approach which addresses the questions of how did we come to know what we know, and why do people think it important to know these things?

  13. #13 Chris
    June 21, 2009

    janetic:

    2) Some of my kids’ peers are getting their science from the Discovery Institute, so they will be encountering Intelligent Design at an age where they don’t really have the sophistication to see the problems of this without guidance from an adult.

    I don’t think you need to worry too much about that. Kids tend to rely on information from their home more, or at least that which is more verifiable.

    And I have absolutely nothing to back that up with… but I have an anecdote! Really, honest, it is almost as good as real data (not).

    Once upon a time a long time ago middle child had a friend who went to a parochial school and was from a family with conservative religious views. While we were getting ready for dinner he announced that he couldn’t believe in evolution because it does not happen anymore. Then, everyone in our family including the youngest who was about ten turned to him and said “Yes it does!”.

    Anyway, have fun with your kids. In my area homeschooling is big, and there are many non-religious resources for them. This includes group classes for homeschoolers on various subjects, including science.

    I met a mom who had been an engineer who quit work after having children. She became a homeschooler, and then created a business by providing a science class to other homeschoolers. She did labs, field trips and used her experience to enrich the science teaching for kids whose parents were not has tuned into physics.

    Oh, and speaking of science educators, one of the sciencebloggers has created a business in that:
    http://scienceblogs.com/digitalbio/

    Anyway, good luck. I know children tend to surprise us in what they learn from home. I don’t homeschool mostly from personality issues (it would be very bad for my already elevated blood pressure). I try to do my best by annoying them by asking them if the physics they see on TV is related to reality (see Insultingly Stupic Movie Physics), dragging them to the zoo, aquarium and science museum.

  14. #14 Chris
    June 21, 2009

    D.C. Sessions:

    Speaking as an engineer (and conceding the marketing utility of a utilitarian approach) I would counter that the reason for teaching science, especially at the secondary school level, is the same as the reason for teaching art, music, history, etc: because it’s part of being a minimally-educated person in the 21st century.

    When I was getting my degree in engineering many years ago I remember there was much talk on the value of the “liberal arts degree.” It seemed that this was a degree that had a very large overall curriculum that made a student ready for many challenges.

    I did not agree.

    More than one of my friends who were getting degrees in areas considered “liberal arts” were able to satisfy the science portion by one class in “logic” from the College of Arts and Science department of Philosophy (that particular friend is now a lawyer who has argued in front of the Supreme Court of the USA… the point of view he argued for lost).

    I felt then, as I do now, that an engineering degree is one that would prepare a student for the most challenges. I have met more than one medical doctor whose undergraduate degree is in engineering (one who blogs is http://beyondtheshortcoat.wordpress.com/ ).

    Think about it. When I was an engineering student there was a specified requirement for humanities and social studies (I took the history of the atomic bomb, economics, a dance class, music theory, South American history, and some other stuff), minimal math was differential equations (okay, I took more… but I am a bit different, I like line and contour integrals), science (depends on discipline, I would have taken more if there was time), and the ever important design with practical application classes.

    Personally I don’t think anyone has a complete and grounded education until they have completed a course in: biology, chemistry, physics, basic earth sciences, calculus, basic statistics, Shakespeare (personal prejudice, I would also add the Sherlock Holmes stories… but that is just me), and economics.

    I also believe that anyone who thinks that their education stops when they get their diploma is an idiot. If there is one thing to be learned by a good science education is that one should keep an open mind, and realize as more data comes in… previous ideas and thoughts of how the universe works may need to change (written while sitting next to Brian Greene’s book “The Elegant Universe”… I’ll get to it, but I wanna read the book on “Euler’s Fabulous Formula” first!).

  15. #15 Paul Murray
    June 21, 2009

    Teaching the importance of science on society should be one of the things that the humanities take on board. It ought to be done in civics class. The *reason* we respect science is that it – for instance- reduced infant mortality, and because it was part of the movement of reason and evidence being more important than authority. Science is part of the movement from monarchy to democracy.

    But these are not scientific topics, as such. They need to be championed by the guys on the other side of the fence: the philosophers, the historians.

  16. #16 abb3w
    June 23, 2009

    Pat Cahalan: The central goal of science education should be to reinforce the underlying axioms of science: that the universe operates according to a set of rules, those rules can be derived by observation of empirical evidence, and that exposing phenomena to observation enables further collection of evidence and thus better understanding of the rules.

    Technically, that “those rules can be derived by observation of empirical evidence” is not an axiom; formally, “suggested rules may be best tested by comparing to observations of empirical evidence” would be closer, and is actually a theorem resulting from mathematics and the “set of rules” axiom. There is nothing precluding developing a scientific conjecture by consulting the Bible or a Tarot deck; its just that the science of history suggests alternative means of development are more likely to produce strong scientific theories.

    D. C. Sessions: Speaking as an engineer (and conceding the marketing utility of a utilitarian approach) I would counter that the reason for teaching science, especially at the secondary school level, is the same as the reason for teaching art, music, history, etc: because it’s part of being a minimally-educated person in the 21st century.

    The problem is each of those being part is considered debatable. I’d agree each is part, providing valuable tools. However, the debate would be unnecessarily longer.

    Schools seek to provide students mental tools for dealing with the world.
    Science is one such tool; arguably, one of the most powerful.
    Therefore, we should teach science, as part of the minimum toolbox schools provide.

    (Religion is also such a tool, although some consider it less useful. However, restrictions of the Free Exercise and Disestablishmentarian requirements of the First Amendment outweigh any debate over utility to keep favoritism towards religions out of public schools.)

    D. C. Sessions: Since preparing children to be informed citizens is the most basic charter of our public schools, we need to teach kids science, not “science facts.”

    The latter would be “body of information resulting therefrom”; the former is not clear whether you mean anthropological or philosophical discipline.

    Paul Murray: But these are not scientific topics, as such. They need to be championed by the guys on the other side of the fence: the philosophers, the historians.

    History is a science. Not a very pure one, but still a science. (The associated branch of engineering is also epically incompetent.)

    Also, some guys out there straddle that fence.

    But yes, it might be nice for the social studies curriculum to include some of this discussion; say, on how the roles of science, engineering, and religion have swung back and forth over the nation’s history.

  17. #17 Eliza
    June 25, 2009

    Going back to the original questions:

    Q: Do you think [combating anti-science] ought to be an explicit goal driving the curriculum?

    No. The goal of any curriculum should always be to help students learn rather than reacting to a social movement. A tool, e.g. the scientific method; a skill, e.g. how to apply the scientific method; or facts, how the scientific method has been used, will be much more useful in the long term, for society and for the students.

    When you start setting other goals, learning tends to be inhibited and what is learned is less useful in the long term. What would happen if we taught a generation how to combat anti-science and it was eradicated? Then what?

    Q: Do you think that an adequate response to anti-science falls naturally out of a well-organized (and well-taught) science curriculum organized around other goals (like, say, understanding the process by which scientific knowledge is built and tested)?

    Yes. Then any debate can be informed, at the least, and irrelevant at best. Anti-”anti-science” is not a particularly good place from which to join public discourse.

    Q: Do you think there are any dangers looming if you make the central goal of science education combating the forces of anti-science?

    Other than the problems above, making the central goal of science education something other that “science” and “education” tends to encourage the politicization of science and devalue what science can do.

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