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Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

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

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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.

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

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