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Science as Storytelling or Story Telling?
A Conversation About Science Education ... and Science

Barry Bickmore, David Grandy, and Paul Grobstein

Barry Bickmore and David Grandy are respectively faculty members in the Departments of Geology and of Philosophy at Brigham Young University, and during the fall of 2005 collaborated on an essay titled "Science As Storytelling". They sent the essay to Paul Grobstein, whose own article, "Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising" had appeared earlier that year, and who has a longstanding commitment to the rethinking of both science education and science itself (see Science as Story Telling in Action.

Explaining the origin and intent of the "Science As Storytelling", Barry Bickmore wrote

One of my specialties is Geoscience Education (I'm also a geochemist), and for the past few years I and my graduate students have been testing some educational strategies on my Earth Science class for elementary education majors. The major problem we have been trying to tackle is that these particular students (in general) don't like science very much, and their negative attitudes get passed on to their own elementary school students ...

I have been crystallizing some thoughts about teaching the nature of science to my students, and trying to make them see it as relevant to their own lives. I remembered a comment by Paul Feyerabend that modern scientists serve a function equivalent to court jesters in earlier times, and came up with the idea that science is a form of storytelling. I thought that if I could effectively explain this idea, and adopt this "Science As Storytelling" theme throughout my course curriculum, maybe this would serve to enhance my students' attitudes toward science even further. Furthermore, I have also noticed that in the Evolution/Creationism/Intelligent Design debate that has been going on, science educators often complain that, "If they could just understand the Nature of Science, they would see that ID is not science!" But then, when they go on to explain their concept of the nature of science, it turns out to be demonstrably false, and usually patronizing towards religious students. Therefore, I set out to write an essay that will form the basis of class discussion on the Nature of Science ... and designed to help students see science as thoroughly human and non-threatening.
Paul Grobstein had earlier written in a different context There are very real obstacles against teaching science in even the beginning "less wrong" way described here. Teaching science as a work in progress, one in which students are active participants, is enormously more time consuming than teaching science as truth. And it is a kind of teaching which depends on faculty who have not only the time, but also the inclination, background, and experience to treat science as a broad human activity ... Can appealing and engaging "less wrong" science teaching spread through disciplines and institutions and become a stable part of undergraduate science education? Yes, of course, but some other aspects of our educational and scientific communities are going to have to become "less wrong" too if they and we seriously want it to be so. The continuing conversation presented here is excerpted from an ongoing email exchange among Bickmore, Grandy, and Grobstein and is intended as a contribution to wider public conversation about Story as Story Telling in Action. Join the conversation yourself in the on-line forum or email us.
PG to BB/DG, 26 November 2005

I was very pleased to receive and read your essay, and enjoyed thinking about it in relation to my own. Its always encouraging to find that a place one has gotten to by one route has been reached as well by other people following other paths. Such a convergence of stories increases one's sense that there is a there there, that something one thinks worth exploring and developing further is not fully idiosyncratic but instead connects to the experiences/aspirations of at least some other people. Its nice as well that between us we have both "story telling" and "storytelling" covered in terms of google searches. That should make it easier for all of us to discover how many other people out there share some of our common interests/concerns.

There are lots of obvious similarities between storytelling and story telling, but also some intriging differences. The differences please me as much as the similarities, since they provide the grist for further exploration and development. So, let's start with those, and see what evolves?

An obvious difference is that your essay has a much better defined target audience than mine: college students who "don't like science very much" but who will be the educators of future generations. I certainly think the story needs to be told in different ways for different audiences (cf "Revisions for Particular Audiences" at Science as Story Telling and Story Revision: A Conversation), and that that is obviously a very important audience to reach. I'll be very interested in hearing how your classes react to the essay and hope you'll keep me (and others) posted on your experiences along these lines.

My essay was written with your target audience in mind, but with a number of additional ones as well. I had in mind both students who have some aversion to science and those who are already engaged with science, professional scientists as well as academics in other realms, and the general public. I have to date a small sample of reactions to the article from K-12 teachers and a few others (see also Religion as Testing: Another Sort of Story Revising as well as enlarging the local and the following postings in a faculty discussion group).

There are of course some costs in trying to write for such a broad and diverse audience but perhaps some benefits as well, particularly if one feels (as I do) that the "problem" one is addressing is not a problem specific to a particular audience but a more general one that requires for its resolution a change of perspective more generally. Among the things on my mind was the challenge offered by a student in one of my classes (and quoted in my article)

"This is a stirring appraisal of science and one that I would very much like to believe. 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 ... you and what army?" Clearly its important but not enough to find a way to engage "students who don't like science very much". One needs, even if only to support that ambition, a broader set of changes in perceptions of science among a variety of groups of people, including scientists themselves. In fact, in my experience, the story of science as story is generally more appealing to people who have felt disengaged from science and hardest to sell to scientists, and others with professional interests in this area (cf "Getting It Less Wrong, the Brain's Way: Science, Pragmatism, and Multiplism"). I assume you have similar experiences among geologists? among philosophers of science? I think your article has some useful things to say in these realms as well. Are you comfortable using it also for such additional audiences?

I very much like your bottom line "it is our hope that you will be ready to make your own informed judgments about where scientific stories should fit in your own life, and in contemporary society", and think your notion that "scientific storytelling follows certain rules that set it apart from other genres" is valuable, as is your characterization of some of those "rules". I think the latter will be useful not only for students (both those so far disenchanged with science and those engaged with it who might not have thought deeply about what is involved) but for others as well (professionals included). At the same time, I'm inclined to take (as I do in my own article) a somewhat broader approach to what differentiates (and doesn't differentiate) scientific story telling from other kinds of story telling (cf On Beyond Post-Modernism: Discriminating Stories for some current thinking along these lines). For our own purposes, as well as others sharing our broader objectives, let me briefly sketch where I see the differences to be using a few quotations from your paper followed by my thoughts.

"In order to help you understand why things like astrology (or history, or any number of other fields of study ...) are not considered science, we must explain the kind of standards scientists set for themselves ..."

I am, I suspect, less interested in the "demarcation" problem that you are, in setting a sharp border between what is termed "science" and other things. There are several reasons for this. One is that as a scientist and observer of science (past and present) I have been impressed by the important permeability of the science/non-science border. Much of the modern "scientific" understanding of the universe stems from people observing the stars in order to try and predict the future ("astrology"), from people manipulating matter in order to try and make gold ("alchemy") and so forth and so on (see, for example, the recent Soul Made Flesh on the rise of modern physiology). In short, relevant observations and stories have come from a variety of places, not only from those who follow the current rules you outline, and there is every reason to think they will continue to do so.

A second reason for being less interested in/concerned about "demarcation" is that I don't think there actually is, in fact, a consensus among scientists about "the kind of standards [they] set for themselves". That's not to say most contemporary scientists might not agree with the rules you lay out, nor that it is not valuable to try and make explicit a broad set of cultural practices, but the scientific community is actually pretty heterogenous, probably usefully so, and that is an important point to make about science as well. "it is not, and never has been, particular techniques or styles that create the power of science or assure its continuing progress. What does so is the underlying principle of skepticism, of continually questioning both stories and the styles in which they are told."

The third, and perhaps most important reason for not putting too much emphasis on "demarcation" is that such emphasis itself tends to encourage people to opt in or out, and that can and does reduce the likelihood that people will "make your own informed judgments about scientific stories", to say nothing of becoming sufficiently engaged with them to be both critical and creative with them. I don't think it is at all what you had in mind but there is a risk, in laying out a set of "rules", of characterizing science as an activity in which one is invited to engage if and only if one satisfies certain "litmus tests". My own preference, as I wrote, is to stress that "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 ... There is no risk in doing so and a great deal to be gained, not only in relieving unnecessary tensions between science and other aspects of culture but also in terms of science itself.".
"Science is the art of creating explanations for natural phenomena that could be useful for controlling or predicting nature" I'm glad to see your emphasis on "useful" since my own story of science, like yours, is very much that science is about what works rather than about "Truth", as for example: "Scientific stories are ... not heard as competitors in the arena of "Truth," nor as guarantors of human safety and well being, but rather as valuable contributors to the diversity of influences on individual lives ... Science is therefore fundamentally not about security but about doubt, not about knowing but about asking, not about certainty but about skepticism."

"Moreover, as science evolves, it is entering realms where human perspectives (and their effects) appear increasingly to be unavoidably (and perhaps even desirably) intertwined with much of what is being explored."

Notice though a slightly different tone here, one that perhaps reflects some deeper and more significant differences. "controlling or predicting nature" may be a desideratum for some scientists but it is certainly not for all scientists nor for all humans. For many, in fact, that aspiration calls up images (not all inappropriate) of a scientific arrogance that has arguably made most peoples' lives less predictable and satisfying rather than more so. Equally importantly, there is increasing reason within science itself to doubt that predictability, much less control, is either an attainable or a desirable objective (cf Variability in Brain Function and Behavior). Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the notion of science as an objective observer of a realm of "natural phenomena" is increasingly under question, both within the traditional physical sciences and as science increasingly becomes engaged with an exploration of a variety of human behaviors and activities.

I don't at all deny that scientific stories must make predictions; without that they cannot motivate new observations and further story evolution. I'm less sure that it is still appropriate/useful to connect that to "control" and that in turn to "useful". Hence my effort to ground science somewhat differently: "not about security but about doubt, not about knowing but about asking, not about certainty but about skepticism". "Useful" in science, I would contend, means "opening new questions, motivating new observations, encouraging new stories". And this in turn is "useful" to humanity insofar as it contributes "to the diversity of influences on individual lives" and so provides all humans the wherewithal for an "open-ended and continuing exploration of what might be".

"Rule #1. Scientific stories are crafted to explain observations, but the observations that are used as a basis for these must be reproducible."

I do think its terribly important to stress that the meat of science is "observations", from which stories follow as ways to make sense of those. And so one does indeed have to worry about the reliability of observations; people can of course be tricked, can hallucinate, see "what they expected or wanted to see, or even lie". And certainly one way to try and deal with this that has been reasonably effective in the past is to insist of "reproducibility". ie to accept a criterion for observations that "narrows the field ... to experiences that are, in principle, transferable from person to person". My guess, actually, is that this narrowing was accepted not only for practical reasons but also as a sort of Faustian bargain: scientists (at least some) agreed to this limitation to avoid coming into conflict with other forms of exploration that took personal experience as their own basic set of observations.

Whether or not there was a Faustian bargain involved here in the past, it is increasingly clear that science cannot continue to decline to accept "personal experience" as a legitimate source of observations. Consciousness as a significant aspect of human brain function, for example, cannot be explored without making use of "personal experience" as relevant observations, and the same holds for much of contemporary cognitive science. In both of these areas, scientists have developed and are actively using criteria to assure the "reliability" of observations that do not depend on "experiences that are, in principle, transferable from person to person". The genuinely distinctive is an essential component of what is being explored. This can (and does) include, among other things, "inner religious experiences, strange phenomea that only ever occur to single observers", and the like.

"Rule #3. Scientific stories should be subject to an infinitely repeating process of evaluation mean to generate more and more useful stories" On the continual recursive process we are very dramatically in the same place, using somewhat (perhap usefully?) different words and images. There may, though, be a perhaps interesting hidden difference. You speak of a "human enterprise, prone to human limitations", with the assumption that were we more perfect our stories would be correspondingly more perfect. And I'm inclined instead to think of the "humanity" of the process as an asset, as a feature rather than a bug. Perhaps it would be a "bug" if the task was to uncover a pre-existing "reality" but if it is instead, as you say, to continually come up with improved ("less wrong") explanations then our humanness (in the sense of being able to imagine all sorts of different things) may well be an asset rather than a problem. "Rule #4. Scientific explanations cannot appeal to the supernatural. Only naturalistic explanations are allowed." Just as there is a problem with grounding science in "natural phenomena", I think one has to be a little careful in ruling out "supernatural" explanations. Apollo carrying the sun around on his back was actually a quite good "scientific" story at the time. It and the flat earth and the sun going around the earth were perfectly reasonable "summaries of observations" (see Evolution (and revolution?)) that in turn motivated new observations. The real problem isn't the "supernatural" per se; that term can be understood to mean only "what we have not yet understood" and can equally be applied to a number of constructs of contemporary science. The real problem, as you point out, is the state of mind that says "No other natural explanation ... can be conceived" or when a story presumes absolutely ad hoc and arbitrary causal influences that cannot themselves be further explored. The conflict with some religions is a real one (cf Fundamentalism and Relativism: Finding a New Direction but is actually about whether there are causally significant things that can't be explored rather than about whether there are things of that kind that we don't yet understand. Its about settling for existing stories as opposed to continuing exploration of what might be.

"Rule #5. Any scientific explanation involving events in the past must square with the principle of "Uniformitarianism"-the assumption that past events can be explained in terms of the "natural laws" that apply today"

Not being myself a geologist, I hadn't thought about this one and am delighted to have it put on the table. And I do think its a good "heuristic", that many good scientific stories have this characteristic and that its a good starting point for trying to create good new ones. My reservations about "natural" laws, though, still hold here and particularly so as a neurobiologist with interests in evolution. There are a number of "laws" currently operating (as a result of, among other things, the evolution of the brain) that didn't operate in the past, and so shouldn't in fact be used to try and make sense of the past. A particularly apt example is the phenomenon of intentionality, of things bringing brought into being by agents who intend to create such a thing. We currently plan and create a variety of complex entities, for example, but that ought not to be taken as reason to presume that there was in the past an intelligent designer that accounts for the appearance of complex entitites (like ourselves) in the past. "Rule #6. Scientists assume that nature is simple enough for human minds to understand." This one caught me by surprise too, and also intrigues me. I'm not sure science actually needs a presumption that what it explores ("nature" including humans and their workings/creations) is "simple enough", but ... we do indeed tend to make that assumption. What's interesting to me as a neurobiologist is that science is actually done by brains and brains are altered by doing science (as they are by all action) and so ... there is no reason to believe that however complex what we are trying to understand is we can't make a tool of the needed required compexity. Which in turn would, of course, make what neurobiologists try to understand still more complex and hence require .... Yep, here too its about ... unending exploration/story telling/story revising. I trust you'll take all this in a spirit very much intended, as an expression of interest in and admiration for both your thoughtfulness and your courage in taking on the story of science as story. Though I've touched only lightly on our points of commonality and spent much more time on our possible differences, I have done so because of how much there is we agree on (both conceptually and in terms of what we are trying to do in classrooms) and how interested I am in seeing where we can go next with the story of science as story. As story telling or as storytelling. I hope you share some of that excitement and look forward to seeing your own thoughts on the similarities and differences between our two papers.

BB to PG, 5 December 2005

Isn't it interesting that our stories about "Science as Storytelling (or Story Telling)" travel to somewhat different destinations? As you said, they are similar enough to make one feel that "there is a there, there," but different enough to make it seem that "there" is a general direction rather than a precise location. You have pointed out that there are some subtle, and some not-so-subtle differences in where we are coming from and where we would like to go with this theme, although it seems that our paths cross at a number of points. As I answer some of your points, I'll try to illuminate my own background and goals a little more clearly.

You said:

In fact, in my experience, the story of science as story is generally more appealing to people who have felt disengaged from science and hardest to sell to scientists, and others with professional interests in this area. I assume you have similar experiences among geologists? among philosophers of science? I think your article has some useful things to say in these realms as well. Are you comfortable using it also for such additional audiences?

Indeed Dave and I do intend the essay for a broader audience, especially in the higher education community (although I have a friend teaching middle school science who wants to adapt it for his students.) The two main groups I am concerned about convincing are college students and science professors.

I anticipate (or have already observed) several concerns from these groups. Of course, students want to be taught a realistic view of science that is easily understandable. But also, they do not want to feel manipulated, or feel that their religious beliefs are under attack. In large part, professors share these concerns, but also want to ensure that their students do not come away with an anti-science attitude.

This last point, I believe, might partially explain why it is so difficult to convince many scientists to take a "storytelling" approach to teaching the nature of science. Even if the "science as storytelling" type of approach feels liberating to students and reduces the tension between science and religion in their minds, their professors might be concerned that such an approach would give students license to dismiss science as "just" storytelling. This is one reason I believe some attempt has to be made to distinguish science from other types of storytelling, and this brings me to your next point. You said:
I am, I suspect, less interested in the "demarcation" problem than you are, in setting a sharp border between what is termed "science" and other things ... In short, relevant observations and stories have come from a variety of places, not only from those who follow the current rules you outline, and there is every reason to think they will continue to do so. For the most part, I agree with your point, and we tried in our essay to make clear that there are no set of criteria that can strictly demarcate the line between science and non-science. I am also sympathetic to the view that modern science grew, in large part, from activities that now seem primitive and superstitious. In fact, I myself hold to certain beliefs that some might consider primitive and superstitious, so I would hardly characterize non-scientific observations and stories as "irrelevant." But then why bother with the "demarcation problem" at all?

For me, the answer is that if we are going to discuss what science is at all, we cannot escape the question of what science isn't. This is no mere academic question, because like it or not, most modern people give scientific stories a privileged place in their minds. Why? Precisely because modern science seems to have been so much more successful than earlier attempts like astrology and alchemy. There seems to be a real difference there, whether the boundaries are sharp or fuzzy, and I think people are justified in exploring the question of why science has been so successful, even if this turns out to be a philosophical problem that is not entirely soluble. Also, there will always be those who want to include under the "science" heading certain disciplines around the fuzzy edges of our demarcation criteria in order to cash in on the prestige that the name "science" carries. Should such attempts be resisted or allowed? Again, this is no mere academic question in a country where billions of dollars are spent to fund "scientific" research and states mandate the teaching of "science" in public schools. So even though I agree that the demarcation problem is not completely soluble, I am inclined to believe that we cannot escape saying something about it.

In my opinion, even if there are not hard and fast rules governing how scientists operate, there are still useful rules of thumb that can explain why modern science has been so successful at explaining the natural world in useful ways, and why other attempts have not been so successful. I think that students need such criteria to really come to appreciate science for what it is, and I also think that a "storytelling" approach to teaching the nature of science would be a hard sale for science professors if it requires that we equate astrology with science.

Nevertheless, you are right that "the scientific community is actually pretty heterogeneous, probably usefully so, and that is an important point to make about science as well." This is why we tried to point out exceptions to many of our rules.
Your final reason for not stressing the demarcation problem is most interesting.

The third, and perhaps most important reason for not putting too much emphasis on "demarcation" is that such emphasis itself tends to encourage people to opt in or out, and that can and does reduce the likelihood that people will "make your own informed judgments about scientific stories", to say nothing of becoming sufficiently engaged with them to be both critical and creative with them.

One point we made in our essay is that certain rules are adopted by scientists for the sake of convenience. I think maybe we need to update the essay to clarify the full import of this statement. That is, I believe modern science has been so successful precisely because scientists have learned to simplify down to a manageable level the problems they wish to solve. (As the Nobel laureate and biologist Peter Medawar put it, scientific research is "the art of the soluble.") Only certain types of observations and explanations are allowed because we want to exclude possibilities that would complicate matters to the point of hobbling our ability to make choices between stories. If students fail to comprehend this point, I think they will fail to appreciate science for the powerful system it is.

That said, I think you are right to say that our emphasis on demarcation forces people to "opt in or out, " and I see this as a good thing. Let me explain. If the success of science is due to the art of constructive oversimplification, then it naturally follows that that there may be aspects of our world that science either cannot treat or for which science will provide inadequate explanations. Every day people have to choose which stories will provide the basis for their actions, and it would by no means be irrational for them to decide not to always put their faith in whatever the current scientific consensus happens to be, since it is well-established that scientific stories are not "The Truth," and are in a perpetual state of flux. If we want people to make informed choices about which stories to adopt, I see value in giving a clear exposition of the kinds of assumptions scientists are likely making when they create their stories.

At this point I might seem to be contradicting myself, because earlier I expressed concern that avoiding confrontation with the demarcation problem might provide students with the mental justification for adopting an anti-science attitude, failing to understand the true power of scientific inquiry. Now I'm claiming that a clear exposition of the "rules" for scientific storytelling would help people decide when to reject scientific stories! For me, the issue is that I believe there really are differences between scientific and other types of stories. I also believe that if most students are told about these differences, as well as the reasons scientists adopt particular "rules," they will come to appreciate science as a powerful tool, but will not feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular point of view about it. I am hoping they will feel a new freedom to consider all possibilities, because they will not perceive science as being something that has to be either accepted or rejected wholesale.
When you turn to our claim that scientific stories must be "useful for controlling or predicting nature," you comment:

Controlling or predicting nature" may be a desideratum for some scientists but it is certainly not for all scientists nor for all humans. For many, in fact, that aspiration calls up images (not all inappropriate) of a scientific arrogance that has arguably made most peoples' lives less predictable and satisfying rather than more so ... I don't at all deny that scientific stories must make predictions; without that they cannot motivate new observations and further story evolution. I'm less sure that it is still appropriate/useful to connect that to "control" and that in turn to "useful".

I agree that science is not always about "control," but it certainly is part of the story (e.g., as an environmental scientist, I am concerned with predicting and controlling whether people will be poisoned as a result of various activities,) and prediction is almost essential. Therefore, maybe we should restate our definition of scientific stories as those that are useful to "predict and possibly control" nature. There certainly are limits to our ability to predict, and in fact it is an axiom of quantum mechanics that certain things cannot be predicted. However, even if it is impossible to predict the exact position and momentum of an electron at the same time, we can still predict useful things about the behavior of systems of electrons. A brief foray into chaos theory should convince anyone that even systems whose behavior can never be precisely predicted might still exhibit limits to the range they exhibit. I suspect that even in the case of the study of brain function, which you mentioned, it has turned up many things that are predictable, even if only in a general way. As you mentioned, "scientific stories must make predictions" because without that, "open-ended and continuing exploration" would come to a close. Now on to your comments about our specific "rules."

In both of these areas, scientists have developed and are actively using criteria to assure the "reliability" of observations that do not depend on "experiences that are, in principle, transferable from person to person". The genuinely distinctive is an essential component of what is being explored. This can (and does) include, among other things, "inner religious experiences, strange phenomea that only ever occur to single observers", and the like.

I hadn't thought about this point, and so I think maybe this is another place where we should clarify our meaning. Perhaps we could say that things like "inner experiences" are not admissible as scientific observations unless those experiences are themselves the object of study. Is that more agreeable? And I'm inclined instead to think of the "humanity" of the process as an asset, as a feature rather than a bug. Perhaps it would be a "bug" if the task was to uncover a pre-existing "reality" but if it is instead, as you say, to continually come up with improved ("less wrong") explanations then our humanness (in the sense of being able to imagine all sorts of different things) may well be an asset rather than a problem. If one thing is "less wrong" than another, doesn't that imply some external standard against which they can be judged? Our problem is that "true reality" is not always directly accessible, but as Philip Kitcher (Science, Truth, and Democracy, Oxford, 2001, p. 22) points out, based on experiences where we can check the accuracy of our conceptual models, we generally come to the conclusion that "the correlation between success and accuracy is high. More exactly, we come to believe that people usually only manage to achieve systematic success in prediction when the views about their underlying entities are roughly right." So the upshot is that if we keep getting our stories "less wrong," then we at least have some reason to suspect that we might be getting them "more right," even if we can never quite tell "how right." Just as there is a problem with grounding science in "natural phenomena", I think one has to be a little careful in ruling out "supernatural" explanations. Apollo carrying the sun around on his back was actually a quite good "scientific" story at the time. I still see a definite difference between that kind of story and those generated by modern science. If you doubt this, just try to find a single paper in a modern scientific journal that refers to God or another supernatural entity as part of an explanation. Why did God go AWOL from science? We pointed out some practical reasons for this, but as you mention, it is by no means trivial to define what is meant by "supernatural," and the "real problem ... is ... when a story presumes absolutely ad hoc and arbitrary causal influences that cannot themselves be further explored." We admitted that it "might well be possible for supernatural explanations to generate new predictions," but went on to assert that modern scientists still don't allow such things in their published works, so as to avoid balkanizing science into different religious camps. In other words, scientists may also have social reasons for constructive oversimplification in some areas.

This discussion has great contemporary significance, I think, because of the current debate about whether "Intelligent Design Theory" ought to be taught in public school science classes. Most scientists seem to be vehemently opposed to it - and not just the atheists among us. Why? Because they perceive that "Methodological Naturalism" offers some real practical advantages. I believe that our exposition offers a coherent rationale for adopting Methodological Naturalism that is non-threatening because it leaves students with an "out." That is, we have framed the discussion so that the pertinent question becomes, "If it isn't strictly necessary to leave God out of science, do the practical advantages of doing so outweigh the cost of ignoring certain possibilities?" Again, I don't want my students to feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular point of view, and I believe that framing the issue in these terms helps students to see the issue clearly and make their own decisions about what they think should be done.

This semester, I discussed the issue of "Methodological Naturalism" in these terms with my Earth Science class for Elementary Education majors at BYU. Essentially all of my students are religious, and it was interesting to see the responses I got when I asked them to respond to the question, "Have you learned anything useful about how to deal with science/religion conflicts in this class?" I found many of the responses to this question encouraging, in that I think they generally support the notion that our approach to teaching the nature of science is on the right track with respect to our criteria for success. (Criteria: Students 1. gain a realistic understanding of the nature of science, 2. do not feel their religious beliefs are under attack, 3. do not feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular point of view, and 4. are not driven to become more anti-science than when they came in.)

First, even though the vast majority of my students are freshmen and sophomores, the approach I used seemed to help many of them move beyond a "black and white" mentality, and become more open to considering alternative points of view. Here are a few examples. "I have enjoyed learning more about science in this class; the main thing for me to remember has been that I don't have to believe all I hear, but that doesn't mean I can ignore it. Putting science and religion together definitely takes time (and we won't have all the answers in this life.)"

"I am careful not to simply jump on the bandwagon if a scientific theory is discussed. I contemplate the theory and how it was developed before my personal opinion is formed."

"The very first lecture was especially useful to me as a [former] biology major and has provided a way to approach both scientific and religion issues that seem to conflict. By completely separating the issues on the basis of natural vs. supernatural explanations, it is easy to accept both at this time and await a better time to understand the whole truth. For some reason, despite my numerous biology courses already taken, the way this issue was presented in this class helped me the most."

"I have learned that we should know about the theories of the world and we should be open to the ideas, but we don't have to believe in them. We will know the truth about what really happened eventually."

"In this class I have found that saying scientists make up stories helped me a lot. I think that it is okay for me to listen and learn a theory that may go against my religion. I am glad that we addressed it in this class."

"I think that the line between [science and religion] is different for everyone, but… important to figure out."

"We can't let religious issues get in our way of understanding science. We can't let it offend us, either. Many things can be true to a point."

"I think that science and religion need to be both looked at to come to the truth, and that we shouldn't take everything in the scriptures literally (we might misinterpret the meaning). We also shouldn't look at science as the answer to everything but more as a way to build on what we know or want to know and fill in the gaps."

"I have learned that science can be kind of fun. It used to just be all of these facts and figures, but now I know that I can look at it in another way and have more fun with it. When I keep in mind the rules of science, I understand how many things about science are just stories."

"I don't mind that [evolutionary theory] excludes God. It makes the theory accessible to all people… and allows them to fit in their ideas about God as they so choose. I don't believe it needs to be science versus God, but as I have learned from this class, it is a good idea to separate the two."

"In this class I have realized the importance of leaving God out of science. In the beginning of the semester it really offended me that Dr. Bickmore kept saying to leave God out, but now I understand that it has more to do with how in depth we search in how things work. We should credit everything to God, but it is okay to figure out how He does it. If we say "Well God did it and that's all we need to know," then we do not learn and grow."
Although we did not discuss the issue of teaching "Intelligent Design Theory" or Creationism in public schools, I did intend to model a way to respectfully address science/religion issues without stomping all over the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It was interesting for me to see how many of these very religious students came down firmly on the side of not advocating religious viewpoints in the science classroom. (In fact, I never taught this - I only explained the reasons why scientists do not use the supernatural in scientific stories.) "I have learned that while teaching science, you should not teach about your religious beliefs."

"Teaching science/religion issues can be a touchy subject, but stay open to other people's views and say that you don't know everything."

"I think I have learned ways to teach a subject that is science/religion related and let the students decide for themselves."
I also believe that my students did not feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular point of view about whether God should be left out of scientific stories, but our approach seemed to help them express more understanding and tolerance for the scientists who operate in this manner. Consider the range of student responses to this issue in the following excerpts. "I feel like, through this class, I understand better why people leave God out of things. I appreciate the advances we have made in science. For me, however, all things truly do denote that there is a God and He is involved in everything, so I don't think it does any good to just leave Him out of it."

"Science and religion are touchy subjects. You can't have everybody happy, so I believe that ignoring religion has worked fairly well. However, we need to be tolerant [of] all beliefs."

"Setting religion [and the] supernatural aside for just a moment forces us to find explanations and learn more about those natural laws and processes used to create the earth and develop life, whether or not we believe God was in charge."

"It's hard not tying science and religion into one. I learned that if scientists did this, though, many people would reject the theory because they might reject the religion."
For me, the bottom line is that scientists actually do leave God out of scientific stories nowadays, and an explicit discussion of this fact seems to help deeply religious students deal with the genuine science/religion conflicts that pop up. It seems to help them accept the fact that no one has it all figured out, yet.
The conflict with some religions is a real one (cf Fundamentalism and Relativism: Finding a New Direction) but is actually about whether there are causally significant things that can't be explored rather than about whether there are things of that kind that we don't yet understand. Its about settling for existing stories as opposed to continuing exploration of what might be. I have considerable sympathy with the views you expressed in the linked essay, and in fact my religion actually encourages one to lean in that direction, at least. But here again I think the wisest course in the classroom is to clarify the issue, rather than advocate a particular religious position or attitude. The quickest way to shut down the brains of students with a fundamentalist mindset is to make them feel that their faith is under attack. After all, just because fundamentalism can be carried to excess or error does not necessarily mean that it is an essentially flawed way of looking at the world, and many of these students are savvy enough to know it. I believe that if "fundamentalist" students can come to understand the reasons scientists - even religious ones - have for leaving God out of their stories, they may come out feeling less bothered by the inevitable fact that there are some genuine science/religion conflicts out there, and thus become less "anti-science." The first step to improving the dialogue in this area must be to get everyone calmed down and listening to each other. My reservations about "natural" laws, though, still hold here and particularly so as a neurobiologist with interests in evolution. There are a number of "laws" currently operating (as a result of, among other things, the evolution of the brain) that didn't operate in the past, and so shouldn't in fact be used to try and make sense of the past. Personally, I wouldn't characterize the things you mention as "natural laws," but rather a higher-order sort of thing. I would still assert that scientists assume that the natural laws by which things like consciousness or intentionality developed (e.g., the laws governing quantum mechanics and the like) have always been the same.

You may have noticed that I am very concerned that my students come out of my class feeling that their religious beliefs have been treated with deep respect. Partly this is because I am a religious person teaching at a religious university, but here I want to highlight another point where our approaches to teaching the nature of science might differ slightly, in order to illustrate another reason why this is such a concern for me. You said:
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.

And also:

Science is therefore fundamentally not about security but about doubt, not about knowing but about asking, not about certainty but about skepticism.

On the other hand, we wrote,

"Indeed, we claimed above that scientists are perfectly capable of ignoring some observations that conflict with their established explanations. Why would they do such a thing? The fact is that sometimes observations go wrong - instruments do not work correctly, experiments are contaminated, and people can be deceived in what they think they see. Furthermore, the world is a complicated place, and even if a few observations seem to conflict with an explanation, it may still be mainly correct. And if it is not immediately apparent how to fix the theory, that is no reason to throw out an otherwise perfectly good explanation." In other words, I don't think skepticism is always a virtue, and sometimes a little bit of dogmatic tenacity can be useful. For example, when astronomers discovered that the orbit of Uranus was anomalous with respect to the predictions of Newton's Laws, they did not dump the Laws. Rather, they painstakingly calculated the mass and position of an object that might cause such deviations, and subsequently looked for, and found, Neptune.

Certainly the progress of science requires some skepticism, but also a little faith. That is, all scientific theories are confronted with anomalies, but in the face of such things the most beneficial response could either be to hang on doggedly to the prevailing paradigm, while tinkering with the details, or to skeptically ask whether a very different paradigm might work better. And here is the important part - we cannot know in advance which course will be the most productive in any particular instance.

Perhaps we could say that what is needed is a bit of "creative tension" between skepticism and faith. Even the most dogmatic of scientists can serve a useful purpose precisely because he has a vested interest in making the strongest possible case for his chosen paradigm, and beating the competition to smithereens. Getting it "less wrong" requires vigorous debate, and the most vigorous debaters tend to be "true believers." Similarly, the most inflexible bible-thumpers can be most effective at pointing out gaps and problem areas in evolutionary theory, etc. This seems to me to be a useful function, even if scientists sometimes find it annoying, and even if I wouldn't define the creation stories these people tend to promote, "scientific." (Could this be a connection with your statement that, "I'm inclined instead to think of the "humanity" of the process as an asset, as a feature rather than a bug"?)

Therefore, I would say that there should be no litmus test for participating in the creation of scientific stories that involves the attitudes a person brings to the table. Rather, as I mentioned before, I do see value in some sort of litmus test for what constitutes a scientific story. Yes, lines are drawn, even if they are a bit fuzzy. Yes, people are encouraged to opt in or out, but in such a way that this can be done on a case-by-case basis, rather than wholesale. That is, if we clearly state that science ignores certain possibilities for practical reasons, this frees one to consider when such assumptions might, or might not, be justified.
Thanks again for hosting this conversation. One reason it is so exciting for me is that I am very interested in finding problem areas in our presentation, although I think it should be obvious that I am enough of a "true believer" to try and make a vigorous argument for my point of view. Not only do you seem to have been thinking deeply about some of the same issues, but I'm also looking forward to opening up the discussion others. One measure of the "usefulness" of our ideas will be how many science teachers actually adopt them, and how many students are inclined to listen.

Do you think that the criteria I listed above for evaluating our approach (students 1. gain a realistic understanding of the nature of science, 2. do not feel their religious beliefs are under attack, 3. do not feel manipulated or cornered into adopting a particular point of view, and 4. are not driven to become more anti-science than when they came in) are sufficient? Or would you add or subtract anything from them? Finally, do you have any ideas on how either or both of our essays could be changed to better fulfill these (and possibly other) criteria?

To be continued ...

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