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June 5, 2008

teach philosophy of science in high school

I think controversies about whether to allow the teaching of "intelligent design" and whether teachers should present global warming as a fact are more complicated than is presumed by most scientific and liberal opinion. To announce that evolution is "science," while intelligent design is "religion," begs a lot of questions about what science is and how it should operate. To say that global warming is a "fact" implies a view about facts and what justifies them. Serious people hold relativist views, arguing that what we call science is a phenomenon of a particular culture. Others favor what used to be called "the strong programme in the sociology of science." That is the view that science is a social institution with its own power structure, and one can understand current scientific opinions by understanding the power behind them. I don't hold that view myself, but it's interesting that it originated on the left, and yet many people who hold it today are religious fundamentalists. And you can understand (without necessarily endorsing) their perspective when you consider that people who are anointed as "scientists" by older scientists get to control public funds, institutions, degrees, jobs, curricula, and policies in areas like health and the environment. These scientists are mostly very secular and declare that only secular beliefs qualify as science. There is a prima facie case here for skepticism, and it deserves a reasoned response.

Even among people who are strongly supportive of science (which includes most contemporary philosophers in the English-speaking world), there are live controversies about what constitutes scientific knowledge, whether and how a theory differs from other falsifiable assertions, how and why scientific theories change, how theories relate to data, etc. To tell students that evolution is a theory and that creationism isn't is dogmatism. It glosses over the debate about what a theory is.

There are also important questions that cross over from philosophy of science to political philosophy. Does a teacher have an individual right to teach creationism if he believes in it? Does he have an individual right to promote Darwinism even if local authorities don't want it taught? Should the Institute for Creation Research in Texas be allowed to issue graduate degrees? Does it have a right of association or expression that should permit this, or does the state have the right--or obligation--to license certain doctrines as scientific. Why?

I am one of the last people (I hope) to pile more tasks on our schools. In fact, I published an article arguing that we shouldn't ask schools to teach information literacy, even though it is important, because they simply have too much else to accomplish. (Instead, I argued, we need to make online information and search functions as reliable as possible). Yet I think philosophy of science is a real candidate for inclusion in the high school curriculum--or at least we ought to experiment to see if it can be taught well. I'd stake my case on two principles:

1. Making critical judgments about science as an institution is an essential task for citizens in a science-dominated society; and
2. Students are being required to study science (as defined by scientists), and taxpayers are being required to fund it. Fundamental liberal principles require that such requirements be openly debated.

June 5, 2008 9:22 PM | category: none


I’d go two steps further back or up and teach: (1) what one might call pragmatic epistemology and (2) something about institutional and individual authority and responsibility.

Regarding epistemology: Solid approaches to science are comfortable with uncertainty and with both the excitement and tenuousness of discovery. A good scientist qua scientist gravitates towards questions and towards the limits of what she knows. The science I was taught in high school in the early 1970’s didn’t emphasize that.

Regarding authority: As you’ve suggested, science as a social institution is in part concerned with power. The power is reinforced by presenting “what is known” as monolithic and drawing a sharp distinction between those who know and those who don’t. Richard Feynmann, the physicist, had a very different approach: he lived the notion that it was up to him to find out, to verify or recreate what had been presented to him as known, to become a “knower” not alone or primarily by absorbing from those who had gone before, but rather by walking the path himself. That approach allows the individual to take authority back.

Regarding responsibility: An authoritarian approach to religion or science is likely attractive to some as it absolves them of responsibility. People use their adherence to the Bible or the current received wisdom of medicine or the Koran or the latest theories of global warming to pass the buck. I’d emphasize instead that there are choices at every point – about which scientific findings to follow and even about how to frame a particular life issue as scientific, spiritual, civic, or moral – and that one has and must acknowledge responsibility for those choices.

June 6, 2008 9:49 AM | Comments (1) | posted by Christoph Berendes

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