Education about the philosophy of science is too little and too late

Longitudinal teaching of the history of science, running from primary to tertiary level, is the key to producing creative scientists, argues Andrew Baker

February 18, 2010

Almost at the instant of science's glorious birth millennia ago, various thinkers recognised its inherent flaw: theories, the very foundation of scientific knowledge, are illogical because they extend beyond what we can ever observe. The argument was formalised in devastating fashion by Scottish thinker David Hume in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739). Later, 20th-century science historians Thomas Kuhn (in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)) and Paul Feyerabend (in Against Method (1975)) examined the previous centuries of astonishing scientific achievement to conclude that Hume's theoretical shortcomings of science forced scientists, often unwittingly, to be more liberal in practice. Giants of science such as Copernicus and Galileo, they claimed, had stepped outside the bounds of reason, science's cornerstone, to garner support for their theories within the science community. Science, these historians cogently argued, is a deeply social enterprise.

To what extent this is true is contentious. But we must recognise that science does not simply equate with reason. The implications are profound. We do not understand the details of scientific process, so how can we make science work most effectively today or hope to be even more successful tomorrow?

One answer is to introduce a subject called the history of science that runs longitudinally from primary through to tertiary education. This would enable our students to realise that scientific attempts to understand the world were not always so specialised, but rather broadly embraced deeper philosophical concepts in wondering how we know what we know - questioning not just our theories, but the underlying scientific method and even reason itself. Such thinking should not reside in the realm of philosophy alone, languishing in most education curricula until tertiary level, and vanishing rapidly, even as I pen this piece, at many universities. History and philosophy underpin all science, so students should be equipped with the skills needed for such deep questioning at entry level.

In early primary, I envisage the subject would encompass science and its various disciplines but deal with it holistically, as one of many human belief systems. Thus, students can explore and endeavour to understand what defines science from an early age.

In secondary education, I see no reason to remove or substantially alter the traditional natural science disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology). These foundations are invaluable for recruitment into university and serve to nurture knowledge of science's rich diversity. The history of science needs to augment and enrich these disciplines by exploring the mode and method of science throughout its 2,000-year development. We could package this for broad appeal by investigating charismatic characters in science history and the sequence of their contributions across the ages.

It is true, a smattering of primary and high schools teach subjects about "reason". But they are rare. It is too little, often too late, in student education. To engender broad-scale change, we must first embed the history of science in science teaching courses at university level - a prospect becoming increasingly difficult with the closing of many arts faculties worldwide. An invaluable resource is thus tragically squandered - academics whose research and teaching skills in science history could otherwise be tapped in team-teaching programmes incorporating their rich knowledge. So now, more than ever, it falls to natural scientists to incorporate science history into their university courses as we teach our future teachers, who in turn mould our future scientists.

Such changes made today to science education would bestow numerous advantages on our scientific future. Our students will better realise science's unique contribution to human knowledge, both strengths and weaknesses, providing a much-needed perspective on the broad sweep of science within culture.

Resolution of social linkages central to the development of the various sciences is a current focus of attention in philosophy. But the importance of such exploration of the scientific tradition needs to be recognised much earlier in our education. We need to engage our students to examine critically not just the historical milieu of science, but relationships at the blurred interface of science and other modes of knowledge seeking.

My proposal promotes such exploration on a broad scale in a new generation of scientific thinkers, permitting science more scope for change and improvement. It provides hope that we may foster a suite of more creative deep thinkers who willingly question the narrow-minded prejudices that so often prevail in the world at large, and within science itself.

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