Gene Expression

The importance of labs?

Steve Gimbel has a post up where he expresses skepticism of the utility of lab sections. Janet, Chad & Chad and RPM all offered responses. All that needs to be said from the various angles that I would have touched upon has been said, so I won’t add much more, except to recall my discussion over at the literary blog The Valve about the testimony of Steve Fuller during the Dover trial. For those of you who don’t know, Fuller is a scholar of science (that is, he studies science as opposed to being a scientist) who has suggested that Intelligent Design is a worthy research program, and is willing to testify to that effect. I noted that Fuller has no undergraduate science background at all (in contrast to Gimbel), so that undermines some of his credibility to speak as an expert. Though I don’t think you always to have to “live” something to understand it, sometimes experience is the best course one can take, and in the case of scholars of science having some undergraduate background (even as a minor) is not particularly difficult. One may, or may not, agree with my contention, but the author of the post responded:

Razib, I disagree very strongly with Fuller’s position about this–to the point of mystification–but it’s parochial to suggest that more time taking multiple-choice tests and dissecting things would have affected his later thinking. It’s just completely irrelevant to the argument he’s making.

To dismiss a science eduction as “multiple-choice tests and dissecting things” is, I think, a serious trivialization of what I was speaking of. Science is a culture, and if you are an anthropologist of science, broadly speaking, you must know that culture. Similarly, if one’s goal is to get students to understand the importance and nature of science, what better way then immerse them in the tedium and minutiae, and frankly, often irrelevance, of day to day empirical work (even if they are operationally “cook book” experiments).


  1. #1 bob koepp
    March 29, 2007

    Razib –
    I tend to agree with your correspondent that whether or not Fuller actually had “hands-on” science training isn’t really relevant to the kind of argument he presents. His argument isn’t methodological, so much as a sociological. Also, if I recall correctly, Fuller did do an undergraduate degree in Sociology — but maybe you don’t view that as science (you’d hardly be alone).

  2. #2 razib
    March 29, 2007

    so much as a sociological.

    but that’s my point. you can learn a lot from surveys, but you can also learn a lot from direct immersion. if you’re going to talk about the society of science it definitely helps to have been part of that society.

  3. #3 Ponder Stibbons
    March 29, 2007

    It is my experience that science students who are more interested in conceptual issues tend to have the kind of reaction towards labs that Gimbel has. Labs simply don’t teach them the aspects of science they are more interested in. (Disclosure: I am one of those conceptually/philosophically inclined students.) That said, I do think he has a case that many physics labs are useless even for those who want to be scientists. I am involved in a long-term experimental physics project, and I’ve learnt infinitely more about science from that than from my largely useless labs. Real scientific research, at least in physics, is nothing like your typical physics lab. So I don’t think the argument that labs help to immerse one in the scientific culture holds unless the labs are well-implemented, which they often are not in physics. I had a better experience in my biology labs, though.

  4. #4 Ponder Stibbons
    March 29, 2007

    I think Chad’s take that the problem is down to bad implementation and not the nature of labs does not really address the deeper problem of why it is that bad implementation is so widespread. If bad implementation is a common problem, then perhaps that indicates a failing in the theoretical model of how lab courses are supposed to proceed. Just because there are a few successes here and there does not mean we should continue bluntly applying the same strategy and take the numerous failures on our chins. Perhaps the few successes are due to exceptional circumstances of abundant human and financial resources. Perhaps the traditional model isn’t practical for most university budgets. I think bad labs can be worse than no labs at all — if anything, they give students a mistaken impression of how the science works.

  5. #5 razib
    March 29, 2007

    So I don’t think the argument that labs help to immerse one in the scientific culture holds unless the labs are well-implemented, which they often are not in physics. I had a better experience in my biology labs, though.

    i tend to agree with the point re: physics vs. biology. or, to be clearer, physical chemistry labs seemed much more detached from the lecture material than biochem or organic chemistry.

  6. #6 razib
    March 29, 2007

    p.s., i too am a “conceptual” person. that being said, science is about experimentation. i don’t think one can “get” science without that. perhaps labs are badly implemented, but they are better than nothing.

  7. #7 Ponder Stibbons
    March 29, 2007

    The reason I think bad labs might be worse than nothing is that I know many people who fall into one of the following categories:

    1) Former physics majors who switched to math because they were disillusioned by labs

    2) Physics majors who want to be theorists instead of experimentalists because they disliked labs

    Disliking labs is simply not a good reason to think one is not cut out for experimental science. I dislike labs, but am extremely well-disposed towards experimental physics due to my positive research experience outside of class. If I’d known only class labs I’d have pigeonholed myself as a theorist as well. Invariably, students who undertake long-term research projects outside of class have a better impression of experimental physics than those whose only lab experience is in class labs. Bad labs distort information about the nature of physics research. The problem is particularly bad in physics because (maybe because of this) there is a serious surfeit of theorists over experimentalists.

    I agree that knowing the experimental method is crucial for being a scientist. Even though I am more inclined towards philosophy rather than physics, I would not have given up my undergraduate research experience for anything. I could never have learnt that method of thinking any other way. I would suggest that any student who wants to learn how science is done should try and get into a real research group and get their hands dirty with the actual process. If there was some way to make lab classes more like real research (present students with real problems rather than a set of predetermined results that they are supposed to obtain via a predetermined method, not have ridiculous deadlines students have to meet that leave no time for serious mulling over a puzzle, etc), I would absolutely be in favour of that. Dumping students in a room and telling them that they have 8 hours to follow the instructions in the lab manual is just not conducive to real experimentation.

  8. #8 Organic Chemistry Help
    May 31, 2007

    It is amazing to me how short sighted these detractors are. Speaking anactdoally, how many young kids got inspired to stay in science when they dissected their first frog? I always hear that story from students and how important it was to them.

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