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Science education: Am I part of the solution, or part of the problem?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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In my blogging career (and even before), I’ve spent a fair bit of time bemoaning the low level of scientific education/literacy/competence among the American public. Indeed, I have expressed the unpopular opinion that all college students ought to do the equivalent of a minor in some particular science as one of their graduation requirements. I tell anyone who asks me (and a lot of people who don’t) that science is fun. Some of the very best teachers I know are science teachers.

But I wonder sometimes whether my exhortations are any help in turn the educational tide, or whether I’m just letting the current drag us in the wrong direction.

You see, I teach a philosophy of science course. (Actually, I teach multiple sections of it, and I teach it every semester.) And, at this university, that philosophy of science course satisfies the upper division general education requirement in science.

Yes, that’s right. Students can dodge taking an actual science course by taking a philosophy of science course instead. This yields throngs of students who are scared silly of anything scientific, and who know exactly one fact about philosophy: it’s in the Humanities college. (Humanities = fluffy, unthreatening classes where you read novels or watch films or look at paintings, and it’s all about what you think is going on, with no right or wrong answers. At least, this is what certain of my students assume before enrolling for this course.)

How on earth, given my aforementioned peevishness about science-scared students and community members, can I live with my role enabling the flight from learning some science?

It doesn’t hurt that some of the other options for filling this upper division science general education requirement have well-earned reputations for being “gut” courses (or as some like to say, “science-lite”). Notably absent from the list are many of the standard, science-major-y fundamentals. Instead, the list is heavy on physics for musicians, nutrition and exercise, and astronomy for people who will not do math under any circumstances. (The main exception: the offerings from geology and meteorology seem significantly more undiluted and rigorous ways to fulfill the requirement. Go earth and atmospheric scientists!) My course, I’m told, is actually kind of challenging. So even if the students are escaping a class in a science department, with me they’re not escaping work.

Also, the general education requirement was structured specifically to make students pay attention to the scientific method, to understand the difference between science and pseudo-science, and to understand science as an endeavor conducted by humans that has impacts on humans. As a former science student who took only the hard-core science courses intended for science majors, my experience is that we saw a lot of patterns of scientific reasoning, and we learned to extend these patterns to deal with new problems … but we didn’t have loads of time to get reflective about the scientific method. For me, that reflective awareness didn’t really happen until the semester I (1) started doing research, and (2) took a philosophy of science course. (Yes, both of those things happened in the same semester. I wish I could say I planned it that way, but it was serendipity.)

For the brief span of years in which I would have counted as a scientist, I think what I got out of philosophy of science made me a better scientist. (That I fell prey to philosophy’s charms and left science is another issue for another post.) And, the small cadre of science majors who take my course (perhaps because they’d be embarrassed to take a “physics for poets” kind of course) seem to get something useful from the course that they can bring back to their science-department understanding of science. In short, the science-y folk seem to think the course gives a pretty reasonable picture of the scientific method and the philosophical questions one might ask about its operations.

But what about the scared-of-science folk?

I can’t deny that there’s a part of me that wants to sign them up for intro chemistry (and biology, and physics). But I know full well that their hearts would explode from anxiety before they even got to the first quiz. Indeed, some have told me to my face that they think it’s “diabolical” for me to explain concepts like intertheoretic reduction or procedures for hypothesis testing using actual scientific examples (mentioning Boyle’s law and the details of the kinetic theory gases to boot). It’s hard to imagine these students willingly exposing themselves to courses where the scientific examples are the whole point. And, sadly, were they to confront their fears enroll in science courses, some of their instructors would decide up front that some of them were simply not smart enough to learn science.

I’m hopeful enough to think even the ones who are scared of science can come to understand something about the way scientist try to connect theories and evidence. I’m persistent enough to ask them to think about how scientists make decisions, and to make them do exercises where they have to try to think like scientists. I’m audacious enough to make them do research in the scholarly scientific literature, and to ask them to make some kind of sense of some of the articles they find there.

They may start out seeing my course as a way to dodge science, but by the end many of them are not as scared as science as they were at the beginning. (Or perhaps, they’ve shifted their fear to philosophy instead …)

Lately, though, there have been rumblings that maybe the upper division general education requirements — including the science requirement — should be scrapped, as a way to shorten the time to graduation (and, not coincidentally, to reduce the amount of money the state is putting up for the education of each of these students in our state-supported university system). There is not, to my knowledge, any plan to replace the learning objective-focused general education requirements with anything like a distribution requirement that might, for example, require everyone to take at least three courses from the sciences (and three from the social sciences, and three from the humanities or arts) in order to graduate without specifying which courses one should take. I would be wildly enthusiastic about this kind of distribution requirement … but the landscape that seems to be looming ahead is one of “less”. There would be less pressure for students to engage with material or ways of thinking outside their comfort zones, less expectation that a college graduate would have broad knowledge rather than specialized skills.

And, there would be even less opportunity to use a harmless looking philosophy course as a stealth weapon of science education.

So, while there’s a part of me that worries that my philosophy of science course enables the evasive maneuvers of students who are trying to avoid engaging with science instruction head-on, there’s another part of me that feels like I’m holding the line and helping more students to engage — and doing so in a time when the bean-counters are losing sight of whether it’s worth it for a state to pay a little more to have its population better educated about how science works.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. stacycbaker 1:29 pm 11/6/2012

    I think you’re doing a great job teaching the philosophy of science to people afraid of science. When I taught high school biology, I chose to offer a science elective to juniors and seniors who don’t like science, but needed an additional science credit to graduate. I talked a lot about how science works, why science isn’t a democratic process, and how things like confirmation bias works. I felt like at the end of the year the students still found science a bit daunting, but they were more aware of the importance of the scientific process and how science contributes to society. So, kudos to you! I think you’re “holding the line” and I hope your classes don’t get scraped. I believe they’re important.

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  2. 2. Bops 2:52 pm 11/6/2012

    Teach cooking.

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  3. 3. M Tucker 3:57 pm 11/6/2012

    Well I think you are decidedly part of the solution and institutional pressure to scrap upper division general education requirements is part of the problem. However, for now, helping non-science majors understand how science works, what science is, and how science is important to their lives and future is a noble task. If you can get more than 80% of them to believe that scientists are not a group of nefarious charlatans engaged in deceiving the public to advance their secret plan to destroy religion, democracy and free enterprise, then you are a wonderful success.

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  4. 4. drafter 5:55 pm 11/6/2012

    Science is hard but I find it easier than writing with all of its rules that are made up, unlike science that must follow laws just like math, 2+2=4 always but where does the damn comma go. Showing that science is not hard because it has rules you can follow might be a starting point.I realize many people cringe when they hear “rules” but if you remind them that baseball and all other games have rules too and that helps everyone follow the game.

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  5. 5. Larry-wa 9:19 pm 11/6/2012

    On Teaching Science
    It is difficult to teach an individual how to use a wrench, if they do not know what a nut and bolt does for them. By some means it is necessary to search for a child that has an internal desire to understand the nut and bolt function. Where does this come from? It can only emerge if it is part of their DNA. In the end, all knowledge comes from DNA. You may have great disagreement with that statement. However, look back to all the great individuals in music. Listen to Elina Garanca, perhaps the greatest mezzo soprano that has ever lived. Examine here performance on YOUTUBE, Vivaldi Bajazet. She emanates from a musical family. Would it be possible to select just any child and find such great talent. I know it is not possible.

    So, it is not in our hands to construct people with great minds. It is that designer of the genetic code from which we all emanate that are either exceptional or ordinary. I am not disturbed by being ordinary.
    Everette L. Wampler

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  6. 6. diandted 4:41 pm 11/7/2012

    I took Phil Of Science as an Engineering student, having completed organic chemistry, Linear algebra, 2 years of calculus, differential equations, Physical chemistry, Fluid dynamics, and a smattering of “liberal arts courses”, including child psychology!! There were 2 groups of students in the well taught Phil of Science course. Those of us who were science majors of some sort could actually contribute to the subject at hand. Those who were not were received the most benefit from exposure to us science majors and our approach to problems. It truly is “Two Cultures” and anything one can do to expose one to the other is worth any effort.
    Edmund Doering MD
    Jupiter, Fl

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  7. 7. DARWIN718 1:42 pm 11/9/2012

    The more we can link science, philosophy, and economics, the more inescapable it becomes. This is a fun read that begins to deal with this at the fringes.

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  8. 8. jtreml 3:59 pm 12/1/2012

    I teach biology to a lot of students who aren’t really interested in biology, but who have to fulfill their science breadth requirement or need it as a stepping stone for some other path they are on which puts me square in focus of your topic. In many ways I think they would do much better in a philosophy of science class – so much, in fact, that it is really my primary goal to teach them that people have figured out how many things in the world work simply by following a simple pattern of research, experiment and sharing. If that’s all they get out of my class, and have some real appreciation for what that means, I’m really quite happy.
    Well, that and DNA–>RNA–>Protein.

    I think your class is part of the solution. I’ll bet many of your students will change they way they think after going through your class. That’s real impact.

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  9. 9. Larrybond 3:36 am 02/20/2013

    Thank’s Professor for this philosophy of science who people afraid of science this topic is the great platform to understand the science .

    this is such a nice problem solving topic.

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