Review of Michael Poole book

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Date: Wed Oct 05 2005 - 08:55:48 EDT

About two months ago I asked the group for advice about teaching science to
my children, which my wife and I school at home. Ted Davis responded by
recommending that I get myself a copy of Michael Poole?s _Beliefs and
Values in Science Education_ , which was written for the Developing Science
and Technology Education series published by the Department of Educational
Studies, University of Oxford. The book was first published in 1995, then
reprinted in 1998. Although I suspect that the book is out of print now, I
had no problem getting a copy through Amazon.

I wrote Ted to thank him for recommending Poole?s book, and Ted encouraged
me to tell the list about it, too. So here is my ?two thumbs up?
endorsement of Poole?s book, which was a delight to read and which will now
enjoy an elite position among my reference books about science education
and science/religion topics.

_Beliefs and Values in Science Education_ is obviously written to secondary
school science teachers as the intended audience. Consequently, it assumes
that the reader has a the ability to track logic arguments and think
philosophically but otherwise does not require a higher degree in any
particular science. Although it could be understood and appreciated by
advanced high school students, it will be most helpful to actual teachers
and those of us practicing scientists who find ourselves in positions of
ministering as "expert witnesses" in science/faith or creation/evolution
discussions in our churches.

The book has seven chapters whose titles are intriguing quotations that are
explained in the introductory paragraphs:
1) ?Everybody needs standards? -- bases of decision making
2) ?What science cannot discover, mankind cannot know? -- beliefs and
values in science
3) ?Every comparison has a limp? -- language, concepts and models
4) ?Wanted! Alive or dead? -- environmental beliefs and values
5) ?In the beginning...? -- cosmology and creation
6) ?Publish and be damned? -- the Galileo affair
7) ?God knows what the public will think? -- the Darwinian controversies

Chapters 1 and 2 are mostly theoretical. They provide a very nice overview
of the philosophy of science and epistemology in general. The point is that
basic beliefs and values (worldviews) determine how people will understand
science. The logical consequences of various worldviews or philosophical
approaches to knowledge are described.

Chapter 3 describes the many difficulties of communication about science.
Fundamentally, everything we learn and teach about science is communicated
with language, which cannot be reduced to mere mathematical formulae.
Words, metaphors and models are usually intended to be ?accurate? only in a
limited context or only to a certain point. Noteworthy historical examples
of mistakes made by overliteralization of models and descriptions are
given. It seems that we can?t do science without such forms of
communication, but avoiding certain excesses and pitfalls when we do use
them can be a tricky business.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss beliefs and values as they relate to teaching two
subject areas: environment and cosmology. Chapter 4 provides an overview of
views about nature including the assumptions, benefits and assumptions of
the popular ?nature as a machine? and ?nature as an organism? models. I
liked the discussion of Lynn White?s famous 1967 Science article, ?The
historical roots of our ecological crisis?; it was balanced and

Chapter 5 describes how beliefs and values and language and metaphor all
mix together to confuse discussions of cosmology and creation, natural
processes and the existence of God. This chapter provides one of the many
gems that Poole provides as ways to understand certain logical flaws made
as a result of confusing the natural science/metaphysical values interface:

It is a category mistake to claim that an act of creation has not occurred
because the process has been explained. Such a claim would be seen as odd
if applied to human agents and ?creations?. [For example, consider the
statement]: "Genesis says the world was made by God, but we know it was
made by the Big Bang." The curiosity of having to choose between the two
accounts becomes evident once commonplace terms are substituted to give a
sentence with a similar logical structure: "Mum?s letter says the cake was
made by Anne, but we know it was made by cooking."

Chapters 6 and 7 provide a healthy correction to the oftentimes stereotyped
and characaturized (is that a word??) historical examples of Galileo vs.
the church and Darwin?s formulation of the theory of evolution. These
chapters, like all the chapters in the book, are well-substantiated by
reference to the original literature; as such each chapter functions as an
encyclopedia of concise but thorough overview of its subject.

Poole?s personal beliefs as a Christian are apparent throughout the text,
but Poole does not allow his view to get in the way of fairly presenting
the virtues, implications, and logical flaws of different belief systems as
they relate to understanding science. Consequently, his book would not be
offensive to the secular audience (i.e, any public school teacher
interested in communicating science to students of any persuasion). At the
same time, his treatment does serve to defend the basic Christian
worldview, and this makes the book a useful tool for presenting the
Christian perspective to those who naively dismiss it as unnecessary.

I suppose it's unlikely that we could get the whole Dover school board to
read Poole's book, even if we gave them copies of it!?

Received on Wed Oct 5 09:00:41 2005

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