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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of "Rethinking Science Education"
January 27, 2006

Paul Grobstein
An Overview of Challenges and Directions

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Notes for and after the Discussion

Paul began by representing "the challenge" to science education with recent quotations from a range of publications: a review issue of the NYTimes Science Times, two excerpts from Science magazine, and a report of National Research Council. Taken together, they make the point that science has become too powerful to think of (anymore) as a narrow community that can expect resources and respect from the wider society; it is time for everyone else to contribute to a discussion of what science is. Science as a professional activity has changed: it relies now on significant exchange between professional scientists and others, and has become too widespread in its activity for its work to be left solely in the hands of scientists. To do so is unhealthy for science as a profession, as well as for the larger culture. As the number of scientists (and native-born engineers, etc) shrinks, the contribution made to science from a variety of perspectives shrinks also. (The comparison was made to a professional army, run by a small number of elites--"a smaller club"--and an army composed by the draft, which draws on a larger range of people.) There are both fewer students studying science, and a suspicion of science among those who are not. Although this constitutes not just one challenge, but a series of different ones, Paul offered to look @ the total picture, responding to all the challenges together, in a general way, rather than "piece-mealing" them.

It was also suggested, however, that--while science is under assault--a hegemonic form of "scientism" is spreading, infiltrating and colonizing other forms of knowledge in very troubling ways. For example, social work is increasingly "scientistic," in profoundly disconcerting ways (for instance, increasing emphasis on quantitative data, and correspondingly decreased attention to "compassion"). More and more "scientists" ("scientism-ists?") are popping up in other fields, engaging in coercive (but lawful) disciplinary practices. (The analogy was made to computers infiltrating culture.) What is needed here (as in the problem of shrinking numbers of professional scientists) is to get larger numbers and different kinds of people engaged with science--not to spread existing scientific practice, but to change what science is. The best antidote to "scientism" is to help people better understand what science really is: an ongoing process of permanent inquiry, with an undercurrent of skepticism.

So: what kinds of resources do we have for addressing this significant set of challenges, which involve a collective re-thinking of what we mean by science? The mandate being offered to scientists in this presentation is to make use, in an educational context, of the same pragmatic technique used in the laboratory: to look @ what's being done, reflect on it, and endlessly revise it. The approach needs to address the needs of 3 distinct-but-interrelated populations:

  • training for professional scientists
  • professionally useful information for those who are not scientists
  • scientific knowledge necessary for living (i.e. for everybody).
Traditionally, science education has focused almost entirely on the first group, with the success of science programs measured by the professional success of these students. This is no longer appropriate (if it ever was). Curricula justified as meeting the needs of this category of students alone does not make any sense. The two other populations deserve more attention than they have traditionally received--and they don't need separate programs. These different sorts of students have common needs--and the most important is understanding that science is a process. The primary commitment, irrespective of population, should be to teaching science, not as an ideology or truth, but as a set of questions about how to do inquiry.

Science, "used right," can be an effective tool, but it needs re-definition. Society's understanding of science--the current instantiation of what science is--involves the misuse of "plain old bean-counting." This is politically contestable, and nothing good will come out of insisting on such an understanding of science. Even the vocabulary of learning to think rationally--learning how to think about things smartly, not stupidly--is problematic: science is not "rational," it "has emotion." When it is taught as a process and forum of inquiry, we need to take care not to leave compassion "on the outside." A "dispassionate analysis of what is objectively true"--a fairly accurate representation of Cartesian science--is part of the problem.

We need to recognize both that "science as ongoing inquiry" is fundamental for everyone and that--for all three populations of students mentioned above--it is valuable to appreciate the interconnectedness, and pay more attention to the intersection, of science with other disciplines. Science has traditionally been taught as very discipline-centered. The notion of science as an insulated activity has to be corrected not only among scientists, but among people at large. Why do we "jump to science" as a way to "avoid the human component," as a way to avoid being "compassionate"?

There are several important threads here:

  • science as a process
  • developing the skills needed to work between disciplines
  • developing the skills needed to engage in the peculiarly distinctive activity that is the work of science--that is, a very high level of aspiration for what usually is termed objectivity. Those standards are achievable by looking at the object of inquiry from a large number of perspectives.
But what about the "touchy-feely, values-added stuff"? What kind of social consciousness should scientists have? What about those who developed the bomb? (Stephen Walker's Countdown was recommended.) Is it necessary to separate science from social considerations? To distinguish research and theory from its application in social decisions? To define science as "doing something because you can," regardless of its later application?

Paul maintained that a greater attention needs to be paid to--and everyone needs to be taught about--the relation between "pure" science and the rest of culture. Scientists have some inclination to "play just for the sake of playing," without thinking of the possible impact of what they are doing. In the education of professional scientists, we should be making sure they have the skills and inclinations to anticipate the potential impact of their work. We should be thinking, ourselves, whether our future as scientists, and the future of science, is being threatened by the work we do in the laboratory. The necessity of conveying the reality of science's connectedness to culture, and the skills to handle the consequences of those connections, constitutes a morality we need to pay more attention to. It's part of the business of education to assure that scientists have a good moral compass.

We need to be imaginative about "where our playing may take the world." The designers of the A-bomb should have thought about "what this energy was" that was being brought into the world. One should not encourage scientists to think, "I'm just playing in my laboratory, and it's up to someone else to figure out what the consequences may be." Scientists have a particular requirement not to deny the connectedness between their process of exploration and its impacts on culture, but to be aware of it and take account of it in their work. For instance, there are legitimate disagreements about the pros and cons of stem cell research. Scientists should not engage in it, without having gone through the extensive process of thinking about the consequences of this research for society. Another example: science journals are currently being blamed for failing to review papers properly (three important ones have been withdrawn during the past few weeks). But there is no way the review process can preclude the faking of data. That can only be prevented by teaching scientists morality. In some areas of science (most dramatically, in molecular biology) scientists have developed the kinds of social reward structures and understandings of what is acceptable that subject individual scientists to temptations they shouldn't be subjected to. The same thing is happening in the economic world, where "a small inappropriateness can get you millions"--so morality breaks down. Small indiscretions are tempting because the pay-off is so huge.

There is a critical need for professional scientists to appreciate the connectedness of their work to the larger culture. One way to assure that happens is for them to have a significant set of experiences with those who will not be professional scientists. We can take advantage of the differences among the three populations addressed in science education, for instance, to address both their distinctive and their common needs. The commonalities among the populations mean the differences among them can be made use of to help each population in its own distinctive project.

In response to call for a "better definition of what science is," Paul described it as a process of storytelling and story revising to account for observations (the larger the number, the better, and the greater the degree of objectivity). There is something to be said for the quest for objectivity. As explained in a current Conversation About Science Education ... and Science, the best stories are those which summarize the most observations, and are most generative--of further stories. He acknowledged that nothing in the scientific "ranking" of stories has to do with compassion. Science has a distinctive flavor--and importance to culture--that does not worry about compassion per se. It worries rather about breath of coverage.

Discussion turned to the difference between this argument for science and the argument for for intelligent design. Advocates for intelligent design "look at the same data, but see something different: they observe miracles." There is a fundamental difference, here, in the reaction to new information: it is the difference between believing and questioning. The scientific method is always "open to more stories." A current story is used because it "fits well enough," but the possibility is always there that a new story will need to be told, in response to new evidence. (The Blind Watchmaker was recommended as a description of this process.)

Paul suggested that, as a substitute for saying that the "evolutionary perspective has faith in science," we acknowledge that science is "sufficiently humble" to say, "Our inability to explain something does not yet require us to believe that it is unexplainable." Our "faith" is not in science or in evolution, but involves taking the permanent position that we need not infer the existence of something to explain what it is we cannot (yet) understand. This is not a faith that we will figure it out. We make "no leaps": we can try out our understandings by only using those things that make sense for the moment. We don't have to have everything explained.

Discussion of these ideas continues on-line, and will resume in person next week, when Anne Dalke will lead a conversation about how science education looks when seen from the perspective of--and practiced in--English House.

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