More sense down the pub

Connected Knowledge
September 5, 1997

The "science wars" are a disgrace to academia. Fanatics "for" and "against" science are pulling it apart. The books in which the extremists on each side lambast their opponents are all equally nasty and silly. We would prefer to leave them unnoticed, unpurchased and un-read. But reputable academic presses expect all their products, however ridiculous, to be reviewed in reputable academic journals. Faced with the task of commenting on any such work, the main thing is not to pour oil on the flames.

Alan Cromer makes no bones about being an extremist for "science". He presents himself as a down-to-earth practical physicist, but when in doubt he falls back on his philosophical bastion which is "logical positivism". At least, that is what he calls it, taking care in his definition to avoid any difficult questions such as the existence of theoretical entities, the meaning of sense-data and so on. In this game, he does not seem even to have got to first base - for example, awareness of Karl Popper's fallibilist critique, which working scientists usually find so impressive. So the "philosophy" promised in the subtitle need not be taken seriously. It is no more than the usual sort of thing that some scientists have somehow learnt to say about what they think they are doing when they actually do science. Dicta such as that "connections must be made between theory and experience" are no shield against scepticism, or "constructivism".

Even as a physicist, Cromer has a limited working credo. Archimedes's principle is his paradigm, and even that can be got wrong if you are not very careful - which, as it happens, even he is not: buoyancy does depend on depth, when allowance is made for the relative compressibilities of the object and the fluid. He does not seem to be quite at home outside classical mechanics. He admits that quantum theory has its mysteries, but insists that these need not undermine a healthy faith in objectivity. Beyond that, science is only OK if you stick to what can be measured - as if most of biology did not really count.

Like most of the zealots for "science", he is utterly scornful of the social sciences. But then, like the clever 14-year-old he once must have been, he has to tell us all about his own DIY versions of human psychology and social history, including a dialectic between "loyalty" and "rebellion", mediated by his hero, Shaka, the Zulu warrior. Oh, yes, and IQ is all right scientifically, because it is a number, and because some people are cleverer at sums than others, aren't they? About a third of the book is taken up with complacent, common-place views like this, supported by arguments that would seem ill-informed in our village pub. Then we have Cromer's own theories of education. He suffers from a very common complaint. As a moderately successful adult scientist who has been through an educational process, he believes that his opinion on science education must be spot-on. It may sound convincing in some small passages but he ought to have realised, from his own short experience of teaching, such as taking a few classes in a prison setting, that learning science is not equivalent to listening to the teacher lecturing about principles and concepts.

Science education used to have a lot in common with just "telling" in a prison-like setting. But in the past 20 years it has acquired worthier ambitions. It wants to educate all pupils so that they understand what they hear. It also wants them to learn that scientific ideas are the result of more than just measuring with a micrometer screw gauge. Real science is about modelling, explaining and imagining. One way of achieving this is to try to get the students to produce some imaginative models and explanations of experiments for themselves.

This is what science educators often - perhaps confusingly - call "constructivism". Of course all knowledge is a kind of construction. Students can no more have science transmitted directly to them without it being reconstructed by personal endeavour than a sheep can learn its own identity by being branded with a number. Both Cromer and Matthews - the philosophical sub-guru whom he quotes so often - seem quite frightened by this simple idea. We do not defend "constructivism" as a metaphysical doctrine, but in the sense of getting the students to make their own suggestions at the start of their work, it is used successfully in many schools, including many in New Zealand despite Matthews's recent denunciation. Surely, this was just what Cromer was doing when he found his prisoner-pupils had their own interpretation of the simple word "path".

We are not qualified to comment on Cromer's strictures on public schooling in the United States. But it is curious too that he should adopt Greek school science education as his hero system. There what you will usually find in its overcrowded classrooms, is 40 or more anxious children clutching their one small government-specified and rather out-of-date textbook, trying to learn science with only the very occasional chance of carrying out any experimental work at all. Is that what Cromer saw? Does he not know that a very large number of these children also have to go to the fee-paying "cramming schools" every evening in order to reach the standard set for entering university? For those who think that education can, and should, be more liberating and democratic, or who find categorising children into groups distasteful, this book should carry a health warning.

Most of this book is not only tendentious: it is also pig ignorant and often completely incorrect. To be fair, there are works favouring "the other side" which are just as bad. It would be a blessing if all such books were quietly withdrawn and disintegrated. But we can't help wondering how this one got through the filter of expert advisers that is supposed to shield the scholarly virtue of our most esteemed academic publisher. Our guess is that it went to "pro-science" bigots who were so enthused by its militant rhetoric that they failed to apply to it any of their customary criteria of empirical or theoretical validity. If so, then theirs is the trahison des clercs of which we should truly beware.

Joan Solomon is visiting professor at the school of education, King's College, London. John Ziman is emeritus professor of physics, University of Bristol.

Connected Knowledge: Science, Philosophy and Education

Author - Alan Cromer
ISBN - 0 19 510240 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 221

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