Monday, October 20, 2008

Scientists need History and Philosophy of Science classes


I doubt I can remember the names of all the classes I took in my undergraduate Physics with Astrophysics BSc at Birmingham in the early 90's, but I know for sure which classes I always wanted to take but were never offered.

We didn't have any class that dealt with the Philosophy of Science, and we didn't have any class that covered the History of Science. If you had any interest in those topics you had to go find a books in the library yourself. The closest we had was Introduction to Astronomy, which briefly covered some historical ideas in Astronomy (Olber's Paradox, etc). (Later, as a PhD student in the UK we didn't have classes at all unlike the US PhD system.)

There are some people who say "Why bother telling students about all the wrong things people believed in the past? And even things that are right, e.g. electromagnetism, are much more easily taught from a modern standpoint using modern mathematical techniques, and not in the tortuous and overly complicated ways they were originally derived."

There is some truth to this. Certainly we wouldn't teach the laws of motion and dynamics in the way Newton presented them in Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. It uses geometrical proofs that most modern students lack the training to appreciate, and that can be done much more cleanly and simply with more modern math (to understand Newton's Principia as it was written you really need another genius, Chandrasekhar, to explain it to you).


But knowing what people once believed, why they believed it, and why they then moved on to believing what we now believe, is still valuable and is good scientific practice (its also intellectually interesting, which one would hope real scientists would appreciate for its own merit). Furthermore, understanding the method and philosophy of science is important to being a good scientist - you can go a long way just doing things they way you were trained to in grad school, but without being taught the Philosophy of Science you can easily get off in the wrong direction.

All of this becomes more important when scientists need to communicate clearly and accurately with the public, in particular in cases where science is struggling against anti-scientific social groups (e.g. creationist/ID, anti-vaccinationists, global-warming-denialists).


As evidence that even people trained as scientists often not understand the metaphysical foundations of science, James Williams of the University of Sussex has studied the perceived meaning of words such as fact, theory, hypothesis, etc, in graduate students with existing science degrees who plan on going on to become science educators.

• 76% equated a fact with 'truth' and 'proven'

• 23% defined a theory as 'unproven ideas' with less than half (47%) recognizing a theory as a well evidenced exposition of a natural phenomenon

• 34% defined a law as a rule not to be broken, and forty-one percent defined it as an idea that science fully supports.

• Definitions of 'hypothesis' were the most consistent, with 61% recognizing the predictive, testable nature of hypotheses.

The results show a lack of understanding of what scientific theories and laws are. And the nature of a 'fact' in science was not commonly understood, with only 11% defining a fact as evidence or data. Here are just a few of their definitions of a scientific theory: "An idea based on a little evidence, not fact"; "an idea about something, not necessarily true"; "unproven ideas."

From "Is Something Missing from Science Education" [io9.com]. The io9 article continues
Although this survey is hardly proof of widespread epidemic of ignorance among recent science grads, it does suggest that many science programs educate students only in the technical aspects of their field, failing to provide them with the underlying context and purpose of scientific study.

Williams fears that failing to educate science graduates in the history and philosophy of science, these grads are ill-equipped to educate a public whose lives increasingly depend on a basic understanding of how scientists operate and what scientific findings really mean. Both he and Gallagher believe that introducing such courses to undergraduate science curricula could go a long way toward making science education more complete.
If people with science degrees have trouble using even the most basic and fundament words correctly then we have a problem - and there is little hope that the general public is going to learn if we can't explain it to them.

I don't teach, but I certainly support the argument that those majoring in the sciences need Philosophy of Science classes at the very least, and preferably some reasonably detailed class on the history of their particular science.

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