Thursday, November 7, 2013

Calling for Education Reform in Science

All around us in society today, scientific knowledge and scientifically-developed technology are applied to value-laden situations and questions, which lie outside the jurisdiction of science. Such practical application, one could argue, is ultimately what science is for-- not only for understanding our world but for improving our situation within it. But in such application, scientists need to be very careful to understand where their science stops and where personal philosophies begin.

In a previous post, I gave you some examples of what I would call “boundary violations” by scientists. In each case, the scientist stated a non-scientific, personal philosophy as if it were a direct conclusion of science. And in each case, the statement could have been corrected and conflict could have been avoided if the scientists had recognized and respected the limits of science and acknowledged their own personal biases.

Because I am religious and I am a scientist, I have to cross the boundary between science and non-science on a daily basis. Therefore, I had better be darn sure of where that boundary is if I’m going to maintain credibility as a scientist. Why then, I wonder, have we allowed the science-supports-atheism misconceptions promoted by some scientists to go largely unrefuted by the general scientific community? Shouldn’t scientists making such claims have lost their credibility on that subject by now? The only explanation I can think of is that many scientists and certainly most of the general populace have quit thinking carefully about where science starts and stops. We are not being trained to recognize the limits of science, and I believe this poses a long-term threat to the credibility of science itself.

The Understanding Science project at UC Berkeley (and funded by the National Science Foundation) was initiated in response to concerns about widespread “misunderstandings of the nature of science.”:
“...research indicates that students and teachers at all grade levels have inadequate understandings of the nature and process of science.” (About Understanding Science)

I am calling for an adjustment in the way we teach science, with emphasis on recognizing what science is and what it is not. In our science classes, presenting a little flow chart of the scientific method and then moving on to a list of “facts” to memorize is not adequate. We should be looking back through the history of science-- to Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Bacon, Popper, and others-- to remind ourselves why and how science came to develop and adopt the scientific method in the first place, and how that sets science apart from other fields. Our students need practice in how to construct hypotheses that can be addressed by that method and recognizing what kinds of hypotheses cannot. This will lead to added emphasis on the idea that science is not the only field with valuable insights to contribute to our broader knowledge. We will thus rediscover that it was the scientific method that allowed us to maintain the integrity of science as a system that is both reliable and neutral with regard to the religious and ethical portions of human knowledge. I will be so bold as to suggest that the scientific method-- the limits it imposes-- is the very reason science can be compatible with religion (nearly the whole spectrum of it) and with various human ethical systems.

In short, I am a staunch defender of the scientific method-- and an advocate for teaching it more effectively-- because of both what it can tell us and what it cannot tell us.


  1. I'd fallen behind a couple of posts, but have enjoyed catching up. Love your post about love. I have felt that is one area where scientism falls short; science can describe, analyze, perhaps even produce all the symptoms and signs of love, but cannot create the existential experience. Love is experienced in the relationship and is not quantifiable. Science can do so much for us, but does have its limits. That seems to be a threatening statement to someone devoted to scientism. I appreciate your call for a new approach to scientific education; somehow this hadn't occurred to me before. I'd love for my children to learn the vast capacities of science as well as its limitations from great scientists themselves, not just from their gadfly parents. I'm glad to hear about the project at UC Berkeley.

  2. Thanks, Anna. It's nice to have such a thoughtful person as yourself agree with me!