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Evolving science/science education

Paul Grobstein's picture

Several years ago, I wrote an essay on science and science education (Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising), partly in response to a student who had heard/read some of my thoughts in class and wrote in 2003 ....

This is a stirring appraisal of science and one that I would very much like to believe. But I’m beginning to have my doubts. In my conversations with others about the natural sciences and the social sciences, I have represented the views that you express in class--about the noble skepticism of science--as those of the scientific community at large. Now I sense my own naïveté in having done so. The [traditonal tale of science] is a misguided one, so you say, but my question is this: you and what army? Are all scientists as given to reflection about what it is they are trying to achieve? Would every scientist agree that it is [the traditional tale that is] misguided?

There's obviously lots of work yet to be done (see below for some earlier samplings of relevant student comments), but maybe we are in fact moving towards a new cultural story about science, one that acknowledges its tentativeness, even treats it as a virtue instead of a failing? Some recent student thoughts provide some reasons to be optimistic ...

While I am in full agreement with the notion of the “crack” of subjectivity, that each person’s “way of seeing” informs their research and finding, what was troubling to me about this assertion was that I did not think it was the general public’s “way of seeing” scientific research. But if [a] line from [a recent] NY Times article reflects a popular perception of science ... as cautious and uncertain, maybe everyone is well-aware of the “crack.” Certainly we see caution and uncertainty in Darwin, given his lengthy disclaimers regarding how much work is left to be done, but has this uncertainty always been a hallmark of science? And if so, why didn’t anybody tell me? ... lsteinbe

Our discussions about the nature of science have made me think about what I was taught in high school about how we can only ever prove things false but never to be true. So then the things that we take as "truth" in science are really just the closest approximation to the truth that we have come to ... Rachel Townsend

Professor Grobstein's explanation of "loopy science" reminded me of Karl Popper's Philosophy of Science, in which a theory can never be proven to be absolutely true ... Jillian Ferrara

I remember from my sophomore year [in high school] when I took biology to my senior year when I took a.p. biology we were taught about new discoveries that weren’t known just two years before ... eolecki

learning about this new way of thinking about science basically put into words what I had been striving to do that whole year [junior in high school] but was held back from ... Brie Stark

I had heard that humans could never be correct about an assumption but that they had to prove the wrongness of a theory. For instance, we assumed that Pluto was the ninth planet of our solar system, but after many observations, we discovered that it was orbiting in a different trajectory and due to other observations, we could prove that the first assumption of Pluto being a planet was wrong. We are now sure that Pluto is not a planet, but we cannot be sure of what Pluto really is! ... amirbey

It wasn't until first semester my freshman year at Bryn Mawr that I was able to really explore science and have fun. That feeling occurred the first time in Bio 103 lab when I proposed a hypothesis then after doing all the summaries of observations proved it wrong. I actually smiled ... kjean

The "loopy" definition of science that began our first class was one that I had never heard before coming to Bryn Mawr, but that my Intro Bio lab teacher introduced to us last term and that I thought was fascinating ... kbrandall

I'm kind of approaching things the way I learned to understand Physics in Prof. Beckman's Conceptual Physics class a couple of years ago. Some of my friends called it a "fake" physics course, or an "un-science" class, but I quite liked looking at physics as a way that mamalian bipeds try to make sense of the information coming at them ... mfradera

The purpose of my childhood science was to have fun, think, and discover something- all of which I find perfectly appropriate. In addition, I did not ever have the sense that science only happened in some sort of sterile, artificial laboratory. I always believed that science could happen in the mud, the grocery store, my living room, etc. Am I unusual? Interestingly, science became more linear once I started college and my premed courses ... jlustick

I wouldn't yet call it an "army." Perhaps not even yet a groundswell. But there seem to be more than a few people, both scientists and others, moving in the science as skepticism direction. Maybe the "unusual" is detectably starting to evolve towards the more usual?

Some earlier relevant sets of student comments