Missing core of science

August 14, 2014

Tim Birkhead and Bob Montgomerie mostly blame school science teaching for an increase in scientific fraud (“School for scandal”, Features, 7 August). They correctly determine that fact-based teaching and a tick-box mentality in the science curriculum fails to provide a good education. But there are many factors at work that prevent a rounded science education.

While it may be the case that short cuts are taken in schools with results ignored or fabricated, this is more likely due to the nature of school science being a filtered form of “real science”. Teachers and students work towards an expected result rather than an actual result. Moreover, there is a lack of understanding of the processes of science and the history and philosophy of science shown by those teaching.

My own research (“It’s just a theory: trainee science teachers’ misunderstandings of key scientific terminology”, published in Evolution: Education and Outreach) reveals that graduates have naive views. For many, responses to questions on “the scientific method” yield answers often equating it to experimental design. While no one scientific method exists, confusion is also apparent in responses to inductive versus deductive methods. Add to this confusion over definitions of key terms such as “theory”, “law” or “hypothesis”, then no wonder we have a problem.

Few of the 189 science graduates surveyed for my research had ever studied aspects of the history or philosophy of science. Key philosophers were unknown to them and while some had notions of the idea of falsifiability none had anything like a developed understanding of the nature of science. The situation will not change unless and until we have a better appreciation of the process of science as well as developing key skills in experimentation and understanding. This should begin in schools but must be carried on at university with undergraduate courses in the history and philosophy of science as a core module.

James D. Williams
Lecturer in science education
University of Sussex

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