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2005-2006 Brown Bag Discussion of "Rethinking Science Education"
February 3, 2006

Anne Dalke
A View from the Humanities

Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


"Rethinking Science Education" entails, for starters, rethinking science as

  • an unending process of profoundly skeptical inquiry

  • which involves the practice of telling stories

    • to account for the largest possible number of observations

    • from the largest possible number of perspectives (what used to be called "objectivity")

    • with the aim of generating revisions (though it's always a bet: which stories will be most generative?)

These ideas I knew (and had bought into a while ago).
What was new for me, last week, were the additional claims that science is

  • "sufficiently humble" not to resort to explanations not justified by the data

  • and so willing to accept that not everything can be explained (right now. ever).

How this Process Looks, When Viewed From Over There:

  • what happens to humanities when (this sort of) science gets taught in English House?

  • are these practices actually distinctive to science?

  • or: Is There Really a There There?

Three demonstrations/experiences:

I learned to do these sorts of exercises
(and learned why they work)
from teaching with scientists.

From where I sit now, there is no demarcation
between what I do and what y'all do.
That seems, however, not to be the conventional view.

Responses to a brief, informal, e-mail survey of a variety of friends and family members

I agree with my daughter:
"What's the difference between science and the humanities?"
"None. None at all."

Some history in how (having been much less well educated)
I got "here" from "there."

Templo de la Virgen de los Remedios, atop the ruins of Piramide Tepanapa,
in Cholula, Mexico, from Anne's Eye View of Mexico (2005)

  • Thomas Nagel: The View From Nowhere (1986) try to form a conception of true nature independent of its appearance either to us or to other types of perceivers. This means not only not thinking of the physical word from our own particular point of view, but not thinking of it from a more general human perceptual point of view either....this has turned out to be an extremely fruitful strategy. The understanding of the physical world has been expanded enormously with the theories and explanations that use concepts not tied to the specifically human perceptual viewpoint....The physical world as it is supposed to be in itself contains no points of view and nothing that can appear only to a particular point of view....The fundamental idea behind the objective impulse is that the world is not our world.

  • Anne Dalke, Paul Grobstein and Liz McCormack, "Theorizing Interdisciplinarity": the view from everywhere (2003) to discover the widest range of what can be seen in common.... the attempt of realist philosophers and scientists to "get far enough away to see the correct picture" might be replaced by a fundamentally different form of knowledge, one that is culturally transcendent without attempting to shed all particularity...to construct a story that could include the perspective of each of us and be written by all of us together.

  • Paul Grobstein, "demarcation": collecting views from from many places, with the presumption of incompleteness (2006) [the only thing that moves] outside the sphere of science ...is ... convictions...that one chooses not to subject to the possibility of further revision"....scientific stories are always challengeable.

    This includes the sorts of stories told in the humanities.
    It's what happens (for instance) when science shows up in English House.

    A report on some practices over there:

    From A "Beauty Surround" (2005)

    English 250: Literary Methods

    disciplinary practices of observation, interpretation and argumentation
    (taking the risk of investing in a claim)

    • Mike Tratner: asking what is literature-- Friends, comic books, musical lyrics?

    • Kathy Rowe: reading egg cartons as texts

    My own science-inflected courses:

    What these experiments share:
    • a clear narrative "arc"
    • multiple objects
    • multiple methodologies
    • generated by student-driven questions
    • open-ended (I do not know what will come out of them).
    • avoiding premature story telling ??

    Is this science?
    If not, how does it differ?

    "'What does it matter who is speaking,' someone said,
    'what does it matter who is speaking.'" (Beckett)

    "this indifference is...an immanent rule."
    (Foucault, "What Is An Author?"--thanks to Mike Tratner)

    According to Michel Foucault, there was a historical shift:
    In our civilization, it has not always been the same types of texts which have required attribution to an author. There was a time when the texts that we today call "literary"...were accepted, put into circulation, and valorized without any question about the identity of their author; their anonymity caused no difficulties since their ancientness...was regarded as a sufficient guarantee of their status. On the other hand, those texts that we now would call scientific...were accepted in the Middle Ages...as "true," only when marked with the name of their author...a reversal occurred in the seventheenth or eighteenth century. Scientific discourses began to be received for themselves...their membership in a systematic ensemble, and not the reference to the individual who produced them, stood as their guarantee...by the same token, literary discourses came to be accepted only when endowed with the author function. We now ask of each...text: From where does it come, who wrote it, when, under what circumstances, or beginning with what design? ("What Is an Author?)

    According to Paul Grobstein, it's time for a contemporary shift:
    I am... less interested...in setting a sharp border between what is termed "science" and other things....I have been impressed by the important permeability of the science/non-science border.....relevant observations and stories have come from a variety of places....the scientific community is actually pretty heterogenous.... too much emphasis on "demarcation" ...tends to encourage people to opt in or out, and that can and does reduce the likelihood that people will...become sufficiently engaged...to be both critical and creative...."participation in creating scientific stories should not be presumed to depend on any litmus test other than the ability and inclination to be curious and skeptical." (A Conversation About Science Education ... and Science)

    The stories written in English House,
    and the stories that come out of that space,
    are generated by curiosity and skepticism.

    They are revisable.
    They are written in order to be revised.
    Might we revise the story that they differ from
    science's story-telling and story-revising?

    (See Why Words Arise--and Wherefore:
    Literature and Literary Theory as Forms of Exploration

    What some of our students think about these matters:
    "Some Thoughts on Teaching" (Elizabeth Catanese)

    "Progressing to Problems of Ever-Increasing Depth" (Orah Minder):
    the problem i see is not unique to the sciences, but rather, to the notion that a teacher's job is to instill the value of ARRIVAL AT A FINAL DESTINATION. all students are taught that there is reward and rest-stasis at the point of getting-it-right. i GET this poem. i got all the right answers on this math test so i don't need to study any more. students are not motivated in any discipline to seek problems, to seek the point where they have no answer....is the problem of the classroom that the teacher comes in with a pick-ax slung over her shoulder, she is a seeker of answers that always already lie buried in her head and she sees her job as teaching the students the need to purchase like-pick-axes that they are encouraged to use on her mind? (ouch!) maybe teachers should stop coming into classrooms with expectations. such pressure of expectation only blocks the student's emergings.
    What do you think?
    What's the view from over your way??

    "Toyoko, from Beeker: Full of Hot Air

    Notes from Discussion following:
    --omitted from the description of "what science is" was the matter of the question which motivates observation in the first place
    --maybe not: why are observations made? we just do it, naturally
    --so why do we stop?
    --are we taught, by the educational system, to search for the right answer, and then quit searching?
    --are we taught to search only for the "maximum likelihood"?
    --the word "knowledge" is problematic: it encourages a belief in an end state, where you can rest
    --we become complacent, if we are not encountering enough varience or variation to keep us from getting bored
    --when we don't see something unpredictable, we stop looking
    --when we arrive at a level of stasis sufficient for our needs, we stop
    (i.e. "once we know what rocks taste like, we can stop tasting all the rocks")
    --what we know is "good enough" in a pragmatic sense
    ("although there are still some different-tasting rocks out there")
    --people seek novelty, and lose interest when they are bored
    --there were two draft statements of the "overriding theme" of
    the current course offering in Philosophy of Science: --"an examination of the growth of scientific knowledge," and
    --"an exploration of the nature of scientific knowledge"
    --the first conceptualized science "as a thing to be known"
    --the second traced an endlessly recursive process

    --but it's not just science that values the most generative story
    --that's a good description of academic work in general
    --no: "academic work" seeks to surround itself w/ citations of the same story
    --real intellectual work seeks to generate, and values the generation of, new stories
    --"Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world." ( Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, The Evolution of Physics, 1938)
    --science rests on observations of what is "real"
    --vs. the humanities, where stories are not so constrained?
    --perhaps the most generative stories in the humanities also describe that which is "real"
    --not perhaps physically real, but an accurate representation of human nature, or desire, or...?
    --in science as in the humanities, there is always some "wiggle room" in moving from observations to story
    --the humanities differ not at all (or very little) from science;
    --science is very much a humanities discipline,
    --in the way its stories are influenced by the particular perspectives of their writers.

    Go to on-line forum for further exploration.

    Return to Brown Bag Series on Rethinking Science Education

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