Re: [asa] science education

From: Bill Powers <>
Date: Tue Jun 02 2009 - 09:46:53 EDT


I am about to begin "serious" (who can tell how serious) discussions on the
structure and content of such a course so these conversations are of much
interest to me at present.

I would recommend a review of such courses at

Regarding your comments, permit me to comment on them within the text of your
comments. There's a lot to cover here.

Cameron Wybrow <> said:

> Bill:
> I was surprised at your response to my suggested experiment. In fact, your
> response made no sense to me at all. But then I read your reply to Merv,
> and your discussion of Heidegger, and realized that you had larger
> philosophical concerns in mind. Still, it's unclear to me from your
> to Merv whether your goal in employing "Heideggerian" insights is to aid
> students in better understanding and practicing modern science, or to act
> a fifth column within modern science education and tempt students to try to
> restore ancient science. Perhaps you could clarify. Are you suggesting
> that you want students to re-open the question whether Aristotle or
> Descartes was right about nature? If not, what are you suggesting?

Keep in mind that what all of us are suggesting, I think, is not something
that would replace traditional science classes, but rather an important
supplement intended for all students, science majors or otherwise.

Heidegger's insights are relevant here for the following reasons. First, we
all live in the world (he would say our being is in the world, and we have
none outside of it). This is a world that provides meaning, place, and
practice for us. Normal science, as Kuhn means it, is pretty much what a
student is introduced to. Traditional science classes teach something of the
language and presumptions of science. We learn paradigmatic science and the
paradigms of science (classical experiments). They show us how to get about
and think. This is a world ready-to-hand. It is a world that, while at
first alien, becomes familiar. We have no other "science" world. Perhaps
that is not quite correct. Some studies have indicated that we are all
natural Aristotelians.

The intent of this course work, as I understand it, is to step outside this
familiar world (hermeneutically, of course) that we might return to it wiser.
In one sense we could imagine the coursework to be something like the Kuhnian
experience of a scientific revolution. Suddenly nothing makes sense, we are
scrambling for cover and something to hold on to, looking for guidance and
something to right the ship again.

In this regard, it is worth asking whether the student can do this in the
same way as the scientist? In both cases, the familiar becomes alien. For
the scientist, however, the familiar is "normal" science. For the student is
something akin to folk psychology. The student too thought that he was
familiar with his or her world. He is being asked to ask questions that
never occurred to him. He doesn't know how to proceed. He's hoping that you
will just tell him what to think and do. He must decide not only what to ask
but how to ask, and what might be an appropriate answer. What is the
objective. How do we know we are making progress? These are not merely
science questions, but philosophy questions.

I think it is important for a student at some point in their "mindless"
careers to be confronted with such a situation. I know this sound
constructivist, a term I presume with which you are familiar. When I first
heard of constructivisim some 20 years ago, I was adamantly opposed to it. I
can only say that I am not proposing that all education become constructivist
(teacher more a guide).

How far ought we to follow Heidegger? Can we think that in part the goal of
the project is a kind of attempt for the student to become authentic? To do
so he must experience dread and anxiety. She must disassociate herself from
the familiar (home) in order to rediscover her own self and relationship with
the familiar.
> My suggestion was based on something less radical, i.e., teaching modern
> science in a more interesting way, and in a way that makes students much
> more methodologically conscious. So let me defend my example for a bit,
> let me know your response.
> First, why is it "not doing science" to confirm by repetition an experiment
> that has already been done? Scientists are always preaching loudly about
> how "repeatability of the experiment" is central to science. (Though
> curiously they are very quiet about that "absolute requirement" of science
> when it comes to Darwinian evolution.) The point of demanding a repeatable
> experiment is that if, on repetition, the same result is not obtained,
> the first experimenters made a mistake. Thus, the person who confirms the
> experimental result is doing just as important a service to science as the
> person who first reports it. So even if the students get exactly the same
> result repeating the experiment that everyone else has, they are learning
> be good practicing scientists by taking the duty of confirmation seriously.

As I've tried to say above, I agree with this. It teaches normal science in
part and the paradigms of science: what an experiment should look like, what
kinds of questions to ask, and how they should be answered. However, I think
most students come away with the sense that maybe they didn't get the "right"
answer. They are checking nothing.
> Further on this, if science teaching adopted your argument against dropping
> the balls -- that it's an unnecessary duplication of effort to learn a
> already known --the vast majority of lab experiments currently performed in
> high school and university would have to be scrapped, because they are all
> merely confirming results that have been confirmed thousands of times
> before -- burning splints with hydrogen gas, etc. By your logic, since the
> students are not going to be capable of designing experiments that actually
> prove something *new* in science until they are in graduate school, they
> might as well just learn theory until they get to the required intellectual
> level to think up something new. But I don't think you are arguing for
> conclusion, so I'm left a bit puzzled what you think the point of having
> students do experiments is. Certainly it can't be to discover new truths
> about nature, so what, then?

As I said above, I am not suggesting replacing current curriculum. This is
intended to be supplemental.
> Second, I hope you are not assuming that Galileo actually performed the
> experiment with the balls. There is no mention of any such experiment
> 50 years or more after the event, and it is now generally accepted by
> historians of science that Galileo never did it. See Lane Cooper's
> study on Aristotle, Galileo, and Tower of Pisa episode.
Yes, I am well aware of this bit of history. Galileo was not so much a good
empiricist. He was working under the presumption that experiments more or
less confirmed what what already well formulated theoretically. The world
was presumed well ordered (as geometry). We merely had to get close with
experiments to confirm the underlying order. In this view experiments would
have to be quite contrary to theory in order for theory to be disconfirmed.
Do you think this view is common today? I think it is the established
procedure of "normal" science.

> Third, you seem to be assuming that if students perform the experiment,
> will get the result they are supposed to get. In fact, or so I am told, it
> is only in a vacuum that the balls hit the earth at the same time; in real
> life they actually hit the earth at different times! This does not square
> with the theory which popular historians of science claim that Galileo
> "proved" with his legendary experiment. Empirical evidence, then, would
> appear to show that Galileo was *wrong*! A good science teacher would use
> that as a teaching moment, and ask students to suggest reasons why the
> experiment does not bear out the theory. Is it that the theory is wrong?
> Is it that the experiment was badly performed? Or is there another reason?
> This would lay the groundwork for a broader discussion of ideal Newtonian
> conditions versus real-world observations. And Lane Cooper suggests an
> interesting variation on the experiment: what would happen if one dropped
> two balls of unequal weight in a tank full of water? Would they hit the
> bottom at the same time? The students could be asked to predict if the
> result would be the same in water as in air. And if the result in water is
> different from the result in the air, what principles are involved in
> explaining the difference? And again, students could drop two balls of
> exactly the same diameter, one made of metal and one made of wood, to see
> that makes a difference. The students would then have to consider more
> one variable: diameter as well as mass. There are many pedagogical
> possibilities in the ball-dropping notion, limited only by the imagination
> of the science teacher and the students.

Yes. I think that this was an important part of the "new" science. Instead
of viewing the world as it is, it intends to describe an ideal world, one
that can only be approached. It is a science that adds effects to the ideal
to obtain the actual. Aristotelian approaches began with the real world and
never succeeded in making much progress. Perhaps it is representative of a
return to an atomism. I think what you suggest is a good idea. The trick is
to be able to provide hints to the student without providing explicit
answers. Your suggestion is an attempt to describe and teach how modern
science proceeds to solve problems.

> Fourth, remember that I was speaking about young teenagers, 15-year olds
> find learning "by doing" more interesting than sitting at a desk and
> down the teacher's notes, even if the teacher's notes are wonderful. Plus,
> climbing up on the roof, against the protestations of janitors, and
> balls off a roof, has a sort of scofflaw flavour to it that would strike
> some of them, especially the boys, as "way cool", to use an expression that
> was current among teens in the 1990s (though it may be out of date now).
> What do you object to in my reasoning here?

I wasn't so much thinking of what we would call high school students. Most
high school students would be wholly unprepared for my suggestions, I think.
I've tried some of this with my children. It didn't go very well. Most high
school students hate to think. I went to a science high school in NYC. The
situation would be different there.

I think or trust that a well structured discovery can be developed. I have
not taught high school science, but it reminds me of medical school: one long
list of nonsense words to remember.


> Cameron.
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: "Bill Powers" <>
> To: "Cameron Wybrow" <>
> Cc: <>
> Sent: Sunday, May 31, 2009 5:25 PM
> Subject: Re: [asa] science education
> > Cameron:
> >
> > I have some comments regarding what you have said here.
> >
> > 1) The problem with taking students up on top of buildings to drop balls
> > of unequal mass is that all they are doing is duplicating something that
> > has already been conceived and done. They are not doing science. Rather
> > they are merely modeling the duplication and memorization typical of most
> > education.
> >
> > They must at least start with confusion. What problem are they trying to
> > address by doing the experiment. At the time of Galileo the distinction
> > between mass and weight was confused. There were conflicting theories as
> > to why the balls fall to the earth at all (a property of the earth, of
> > balls, or some kind of mutual attraction). Galileo, as I understand it,
> > was decidedly non-metaphysical. He was merely interested in measuring
> > quantitatively treating the phenomenon. Would a student grasp the
> > of such an attitude. While we may not be able to place the student in
> > Galileo's context of discovery, can we place the student in their own
> > context. Why would they ever want to do such an experiment unless a
> > teacher told them to do it, and perhaps it was cute to drop balls from a
> > tall building.
> >
> > 2) The Michelson-Morely experiment is an interesting case study. Did it
> > really "settle" the issue about the ether? Or did it paint more clearly
> > the alternatives. How does science choose amongst alternatives? Why did
> > conventionalism arise in this context? If a student could glimpse this,
> > they will have, I think, of come to a deeper understanding of science
> > most scientists.
> >
> > 3) There have been programs that at least make available courses relating
> > science, philosophy, and history. Ted Davis has taught one. An entire
> > journal is dedicated to it (Science & Education). A famous one was
> > established in the 70s at Harvard (Harvard Project Physics Course). But,
> > as far as I know, none of have been fully integrated into long term
> > programs.
> >
> > I am at this time working with some to develop such a class at South
> > Dakota State University, a most unlikely place to try to do so. But it
> > happens that it is here that I am, along with some others that are
> > interested.
> >
> > What is interesting, I find, is that for the most part the content of the
> > philosophy of science is most strongly associated with physics, and very
> > poorly with other sciences. There is some work in psychology (associated
> > with the problem of the mind), some in biology, and very little in
> > chemistry.
> >
> > 4) Finally, I support the idea. But I think you will find little support
> > from science departments. Some may even find it threatening.
> >
> > bill
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Received on Tue Jun 2 09:47:56 2009

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