Re: [asa] on science and meta-science

From: Ted Davis <>
Date: Wed Nov 04 2009 - 09:29:12 EST

>>> "Cameron Wybrow" <> 11/4/2009 12:35 AM >>> writes:

I agree with Keith's suggestion that some history of science should be taught in science class. And a logical follow-up to this, indeed, almost a requirement to make it work well, is that the science teachers who are teaching the units on the history of science, both in high school science classes and in university science classes, have some training in it. Not specialist training on the level of Ted Davis -- it would be unreasonable to expect a Physics professor to have a Ph.D. in Physics and another degree in the history of science as well -- but some training.

The typical undergraduate four-year science degree will have, what? Based on the science programs at the university where I did my undergrad, about 40 or so one-semester courses, roughly 10 per year, not counting labs. Some of those 40 courses, probably about 8 of them (i.e., about one-fifth of the student's total load) are elective courses. Suppose that just a single one-semester elective were given up to a new requirement, i.e.:

"All science majors at this university must take either *one* semester of the history and/or philosophy of science, or *one* semester of the history and/or philosophy of the special science in which they are majoring (physics, astronomy, geology, biology, etc.). The course may be taken from any relevant department (e.g., one of the science departments, or the history department, or the philosophy department), as long as it is approved for the purpose by the Dean of Science. The course may be taken at any time during the program."


He was responding to Keith Miller, who had written this:

  One thing that much science education research has shown is that the nature and methods of science (NOS), which necessarily involves metaphysics and philosophy, are left implicit in most teaching. Students are left to pick up the NOS by osmosis. If it is taught explicitly, it is often taught badly and simplistically.

  Few teachers even at the university level, let alone at the secondary level, have been equipped to teach the nature and philosophy of science. Many are ignorant of it. My personal recommendation is to include more history of science in the science class. Giving the historical context of science helps to provide some of the larger context in which science occurs, and communicates in a practical manner something of the nature of science.


Ted thinks that he may have died during the night and has awakened in heaven -- which he sometimes confused with Wrigley Field. :-)

Let me add something that I said in 1987, as part of a panel discussion on creationism at the American Anthropological Association that was repeated as part of a similar panel at the History of Science Society. The excerpt below comes verbatim from that commentary:

"As long as public education ignores religious values, religious people will feel disenfranchised in the market place of ideas by what they perceive as a tyrannical majority. I do not pretend to have the final answer for this, but I think that a broader understanding of public education might help. Specifically how can public schools help? By telling more of the truth about both science and religion. By discussing the nature of science without smug little half truths -- by clarifying the tentative nature of scientific knowledge without reducing it to a mere string of guesses, by emphasizing its connectedness with other areas of knowledge including religion. To a certain extent, of course, this will provide fuel for more creationist attacks: science will be seen as socially constructed knowledge rather than absolute truth, and the secular nature of modern science will be exposed for all to see. At the same time, however, students will receive a much richer and more accu!
 rate picture of what science is; and they will see that the creationist claim about the unreasonableness of much modern science is not supported. By taking religion seriously, by refusing to ignore it or to belittle it as is commonly done, public schools can begin to break down the increasingly common conception that religion should remain at the periphery of public affairs -- do we really want a naked public square? Religious beliefs, including creationism, should be discussed openly in our schools in the same way in which other beliefs are presented and held up for examination. If we can achieve greater understanding of both scientific and religious beliefs, we can go a long way toward bridging the gap between elitism in science [I was alluding here to some things that Gould had written about smug scientists and the public image of science in his essay, "Evolution as Fact and Theory"] and fundamentalism in religion."

There was no ID movement when I wrote those words, but what I wrote could be extended to include ID at certain points.

The fact that I said this 22 years ago, combined with the fact that nothing along these lines has transpired subsequently in public education, is not exactly encouraging. Suffice it to say that I certainly agree with Cameron and Keith, whose ideas are much more practical than mine while not inconsistent with mine. Still, I doubt that most colleges and universities will start mandating that science majors, even future teachers of science, take a full course in HPS. As Steven Brush wrote 35 years ago, " the science teacher who wants to use historical materials to illustrate how scientists work is indeed in an awkward position. Perhaps one must finally ask: Are the standards of objective scientific method worth preserving, even as ideals that
are rarely attained in practice? Or do we distort our understanding of the nature of science by paying lip service to such standards? I suggest that the teacher who wants to indoctrinate his students in the traditional role of the scientist as a neutral fact finder should not use historical materials of the kind now being prepared by historians of science: they will not serve his purposes."

For the rest, see his article, "Should the History of Science Be Rated X?" Science, Vol. 183, No. 4130. (Mar. 22, 1974), pp. 1164-1172.


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Received on Wed Nov 4 09:29:28 2009

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