The Value of History of Science to Science Education

I recently co-authored a paper that discussed the utility of history of science for science (Isis 99: 322-330). The abstract reads:

This essay argues that science education can gain from close engagement with the history of science both in the training of prospective vocational scientists and in educating the broader public about the nature of science. First it shows how historicizing science in the classroom can improve the pedagogical experience of science students and might even help them turn into more effective professional practitioners of science. Then it examines how historians of science can support the scientific education of the general public at a time when debates over "intelligent design" are raising major questions over the kind of science that ought to be available to children in their school curricula. It concludes by considering further work that might be undertaken to show how history of science could be of more general educational interest and utility, well beyond the closed academic domains in which historians of science typically operate.

Below the fold I have posted the portion that may be of most interest to readers of this blog, a section that I wrote discussing the utility of history of science in the service of educational activism. I'm interested in hearing what folks - particularly historians of science - think. (Note: I have removed footnotes but full references can be found in the original paper.)

The specific area in which we feel that historians can further aid science education is in countering the assault on it currently being mounted by various groups of antievolutionists, whether believers in a young earth or in intelligent design. This is currently a problem that is probably unique to the United States, but it has the potential to become a global concern for educators and scientists. Focusing thus on the particularities of the U.S. case, as historians, we care about both history and science, and we need to ask ourselves what we can do to support the cause of science education in the troubled climate of American public education. In short, we should ask ourselves, What is the value of history of science in the two-pronged strategy to preempt the unwarranted incursions of creationism and to promote the goal of attaining excellence in science teaching?

Antievolutionism has been a resilient factor in American society since the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. There have been numerous opportunities for historians and philosophers to enter the public square to clarify or conceptualize the issues at stake and elevate the cultural discourse. While the philosophers appear relatively involved (for example, in addressing claims that evolution is "just a theory"), the engagement of historians seems to be a little underdeveloped. Yet one should not imagine that historians have remained completely uninterested in the issue; it is only that they have been relatively uninvolved. So what can historians of science add to this public discourse about science education? Obviously they can provide historical analyses that place current public and scientific controversies into perspective. Equally important, they can correct misguided attempts at revisionist history that misinform the public about science.

Beginning in 1968, a series of judicial decisions, culminating in Edwards v. Aguillard, deftly excluded scientific creationism from the American public school science classroom. As the historian Barbara Forrest demonstrated in her testimony at the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial, creationists almost immediately responded by rebranding their writings. They dropped all references to a "creator" and appealed instead to an "intelligent designer," and mentions of "creationism" and its cognates became references to "intelligent design." Over 150 years ago, writing of the claims of critics he condemned as "anti-geologists," Hugh Miller commented that "the follies of the present day" are copies, "unwittingly produced, and with of course a few variations, of follies which existed centuries ago." Forrest's testimony demonstrated that intelligent design creationism was just such a copy--wittingly produced, as it were, and aimed at inserting scientific creationism into the curriculum under a new name. Her historical testimony on this point was central to Judge John E. Jones III's decision to censure the Dover Area School District for attempting to introduce intelligent design into its curriculum. Of course, such forms of public engagement are not without their perils. Steve Fuller received significant criticism from his own academic community for his involvement in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. It was clear to many that Fuller's treatment was a result of his entering a domain beyond the scope of his established research expertise; his experience serves as a warning for any historian of science considering entering the legal arena on the intelligent design debate--or, indeed, on any other publicly contested issue.

Antievolutionists have traditionally played fast and loose with history in ways that historians of science are particularly well placed to identify and correct. There is a long--but poorly evidenced--tradition of claiming, for example, that Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche were followers of Darwin or that scriptural geologists (Miller's "anti-geologists") were as qualified as mainstream practitioners of geology in the midnineteenth century. More recently, some creationists have become obsessed with Ernst Haeckel, bizarrely claiming that Darwin's ideas, published in 1859, were somehow dependent on the allegedly forged images in Haeckel's Anthropogenie (1874). On their account, this reliance on putatively fraudulent scholarship should force us to question not only Darwin's writings but evolutionary theory more generally and, more to the point, subsequent developments within the field. Attempts to bring these historically inaccurate claims and ill-conceived questions into the classroom have already occurred under the banner of "Teach the Controversy," and they feature in the creationist supplemental textbook Explore Evolution: The Arguments for and against Neo-Darwinism.

What can historians of science do to counter this clear misuse of history? Somewhat perversely, much of our community has remained silent over the past decade while antievolutionists have publicly twisted historical fact regarding Haeckel. It took three biologists to set the record straight in 2005. They explicitly made the point that Darwin did not in fact rely on Haeckel but, rather, on information taken from the antievolutionary Karl von Baer. They further noted that the creationists "are deeply confused or intentionally confusing regarding the history and significance of this well-known field."

This preoccupation with Haeckel is taken a stage further by Richard Weikart, a senior fellow of the Discovery Institute, the leading organization promoting and funding the dissemination of intelligent design. In his provocatively titled From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, Weikart implicitly indicts Darwin and Haeckel for acts that occurred long after their deaths. In line with older creationist claims, we are asked to reject modern scientific theories because of how older versions of these theories were misused. Unlike the claims regarding Haeckel's embryology, Weikart's claims regarding a lineage from Darwin to Hitler via Haeckel have been examined by historians of science and indeed have generally been found lacking. Numerous reviews have accused Weikart of selectively viewing his rich primary material, ignoring political, social, psychological, and economic factors that may have played key roles in the post-Darwinian development of Nazi eugenics and racism. Since there is no clear and unique line from Darwinian naturalism to Nazi atrocities, useful causal relationships are difficult to infer; thus, as Robert J. Richards observes, "it can only be a tendentious and dogmatically driven assessment that would condemn Darwin for the crimes of the Nazis."

In his examination of Haeckel's embryological images, the historian of science Nick Hopwood notes perceptively that "historical research can hardly expect to bridge the ideological chasm across which the recent controversy over Haeckel's illustrations has been fought out." Historians can indeed little expect to see their research alter the claims of antievolutionists. While Hopwood correctly points out that "there are plenty of more productive questions to debate," we would like to claim that as academic historians of science we have a certain civic duty to help correct historical misinformation in science textbooks. In so doing, we are not suggesting that students should not hear allegations about Haeckel's fraud--far from it--but that his work should be placed within a properly conceived historical framework.

Looking forward, in thinking about how historians of science might help scientists in defending their educational prerogatives it is particularly appropriate to consider the broader plans of the Discovery Institute. In a funding document from the mid-1990s, the institute expressed the goal of seeing "design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life" within twenty years. Faced with such a prospect, should the main body of historians adopt a neutral-- even stoical--stance on this matter and let the antievolutionists continue to misinterpret history for their own cultural ends? Given the rebranding of creationism as "design theory" and its rejection of naturalism in all fields, one need only consider what a "design theory"-inspired vision of history would look like to realize that this issue runs deeper than mere consideration of science, its history, and science education. There are obviously consequences for the very practice of history as an open critical discourse and for science education as a rational-critical enterprise. Can any historian who cares about the integrity of both science and its history refuse to offer support in such circumstances?

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John, I'm sorry I didn't blog on this myself - my book and teaching have taken my attention. It's a nice paper.

Weikert used to be a historian, albeit one with an obvious agenda. Pity what he's become.

Back in the middle 1960's, I was working as an editor for a series of junior high school science texts and had a meeting at Yale with the wonderful historian of science Derek de Solla Price, who made very much the same case that you've made, and made it most persuasively. The prevailing mode of science teaching at that time was through "learning by experience"; essentially, teachers were expected to dumb down critical scientific experiments to the point that their students could go through the motions of repeating those experiments in a junior high lab. I carried Price's arguments back to my boss, and we wrote up a proposal to McGraw-Hill, with whom we had a co-publishing contract, to orient the texts in the direction that Price had recommended, with the implicit promise that he might agree to be supervising editor of the series if our proposal were accepted. But no dice. We were told to do it the way the schools of education recommended, or there would be no more development money from McGraw-Hill. The project eventually collapsed before the manuscripts we produced were ever published, but I've retained my own strong interest in the history of science, and I still believe that the best introduction to the enterprise of science and the vital importance of that enterprise to society is through the study of its history.

Fantastic! I think the lack of history in the science classroom (and, unfortunately, the amount of twisted history in the science classroom) have definitely hindered science education. I haven't had the chance to read the whole paper yet (too many projects) but I will soon and am definitely going to blog it. Congratulations, John!

I have just read through the entire article and find it excellent but then again I have been arguing for a history of science based curriculum for teaching the sciences in schools and universities for about thirty years! In the article you (the authors) put the question to the readers of Isis, "how did they get attracted to history of science? Were they hijacked from a potential career in science?"

In my case the answer is yes and no. In school I was a "gifted" student of mathematics, a discipline that I still love dearly, but at the age of 16 I was given a copy of Eric Temple Bell's Men of Mathematics (as history total crap but very inspiring) and fell fatally in love with the history of mathematics the only thing in a long, complicated, confused and highly variable life to which I have remained true. I was always good enough at mathematics that I could have become a professional mathematician of some sort but I was born to be a historian. I don't think I was hijacked I just found my true vocation.

Thank you for an excellent & thought-provoking post. Here in NZ we don't have quite the creationist 'problems' that you do in the States, although they're stirring a bit at the moment. And we also have a new science curriculum that places the nature of science as the overarching strand. One of the things that students are expected to learn about is history - how science & scientific thinking have developed over time. What will make it hard for teachers is the lack of resources to support them & their students in this. (At least the textbook publishers seem a little more interested in this area than they did a few years back!)

"As the historian Barbara Forrest demonstrated in her testimony at the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial..."

You mean the philosopher Barbara Forrest... as you point out, the philosophers are more engaged in the subject than the historians...

I definitely think that learning about science from a historical perspective would enrich both high school and college science courses. If students are to understand the process of science, then what better way is there to demonstrate how scientific ideas emerge and die out than to approach the subject from a historical perspective?

IMO, the history of science - the lives and times of the scientists and what influenced their thinking - is even more fascinating than the science itself. I'm reminded of something Einstein said about God and the origins of the universe: "I want to know His thoughts. The rest is just details."

My current late-night read is The Scientists by John Gribbin. Another recent fave is A People's History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks by Clifford D. Conner. (Ignore the rants against "the scientific establishment" and concentrate on the amazing things "just plain folks" have come up with.)

And of course, how could I forget the classics by such authors as Jacob Bronowski, Daniel Boorstin, James Burke,.....

By themadlolscien… (not verified) on 28 Jul 2008 #permalink

I haven't finished the last couple pages yet, but I quite enjoy and agree with what I've seen.

I made similar arguments to my engineering college on some history of aircraft space technology (my field) at least, if not a broader history of science in the engineering and science curricula.

It was after seeing the (lack of) effects of the 'standard' teaching method and my peers' complete lack of feel for the process and methods of true discovey and the critical thinking and problem solving skills that made me think that what made my education different was my strong attraction to history of the field (among other things). Boy, that's a run on sentence and a half, huh? =P

Anyway, nice article. Hopefully some enterprising profs will develop a curriculum that may be modelled by others. It also takes an effective teacher, though, and those are rarer than hen's teeth, in my experience.


Hi John - I finally got around to reading the article. Yes, philosophers more so than historians - think Michael Ruse and Robert T. Pennock's roles in court cases.

Besides testifying in court cases and publishing academic works that bear on the creationism/evolution controversy, specifically in what ways do you think that historians can be actively engaged in the debate? Of course, as scientists often do, I think historians should step up when the issue sparks somewhere and be involved in community meetings with school boards and venues of that nature.

I recently saw that Paul Farber had written a piece in 'The American Biology Teacher' in 2003 titled "Teaching Evolution & the Nature of Science," and he closed by saying:

"Biology is not a body of facts to memorize but a quest
towards understanding, one that is ever changing and
one that has roots not only in the phenomena that we
observe, but in the human world that shapes our concerns
and questions. If we can move the study of biology
toward what excites biologists and away from what
makes students' eyes glaze over, we shall have accomplished
an important and valuable task."

How else do you see historians of science engaging the public on the issue?

How else do you see historians of science engaging the public on the issue?

Good questions ... and one that I'm going to have to think about. I'm writing a piece on historians and the C/E "wars" for the HSS newsletter and no doubt will get a bit prescriptive in the final paragraphs. More anon, no doubt.

By John Lynch (not verified) on 06 Jan 2009 #permalink