Thursday, September 08, 2005

Part of the solution, or part of the problem?

I've spent a fair bit of time in these parts bemoaning the low level of scientific education/literacy/competence among the American public. Indeed, I recently expressed the opinion that college graduates ought to do the equivalent of a minor in a particular science. I tell anyone who asks me (and a lot of people who don't) that science is fun. Some of the very best teachers I know are science teachers.

But I wonder sometimes whether I'm helping turn the educational tide or just letting the current drag us in the wrong direction.

You see, I teach a philosophy of science course. (Actually, I teach multiple sections of it, and I teach it every semester.) And, at this university, that philosophy of science course satisfies the upper division general education requirement in science.

Yes, that's right. Students can dodge taking an actual science course by taking a philosophy of science course instead. This yields throngs of students who are scared silly of anything scientific, and who know exactly one fact about philosophy: it's in the Humanities college. (Humanities = fluffy, unthreatening classes where you read novels or watch films or look at paintings, and it's all about what you think is going on, with no right or wrong answers. At least, this is what certain of my students assume before enrolling for this course.)

How on earth, given my aforementioned peevishness about science-scared students and community members, can I live with my role enabling the flight from learning some science?

It doesn't hurt that some of the other options for filling this requirement have well-earned reputations for being "gut" courses (or as some like to say, "science-lite"). Notably absent from the list are many of the standard, science-major-y fundamentals. Instead, the list is heavy on physics for musicians, nutrition and exercise, and astronomy for people who will not do math under any circumstances. (The main exception: the offerings from geology and meteorology seem significantly more "macho" ways to fulfill the requirement. Go earth and atmospheric scientists!) My course, I'm told, is actually kind of challenging. So even if the students are escaping a class in a science department, with me they're not escaping work.

Also, the general education requirement was structured specifically to make students pay attention to the scientific method, to understand the difference between science and pseudo-science, and to understand science as an endeavor conducted by humans that has impacts on humans. As a former beauty queen science student, taking only the hard-core science courses, my experience is that we saw a lot of patterns of scientific reasoning, and we learned to extend these patterns to deal with new problems ... but we didn't have loads of time to get reflective about the scientific method. For me, that reflective awareness didn't really happen until the semester I (1) started doing research, and (2) took a philosophy of science course.

For the brief span of years in which I would have counted as a scientist, I think what I got out of philosophy of science made me a better scientist. (That I fell prey to philosophy's charms and left science is another issue for another post.) And, the small cadre of science majors who take my course (perhaps because they'd be embarrassed to take a "physics for poets" kind of course) seem to get something useful from the course that they can bring back to their science-department understanding of science. In short, the science-y folk seem to think the course gives a pretty reasonable picture of the scientific method and the philosophical questions one might ask about its operations.

But what about the scared-of-science folk?

I can't deny that there's a part of me that wants to sign them up for intro chemistry (and biology, and physics). But I know full well that their hearts would burst before they even got to the first quiz. And, sadly, some of their instructors would decide up front that some of them were just too dumb to learn science.

I'm foolish enough to think even the ones who are scared of science can come to understand something about the way scientist try to connect theories and evidence. I'm naive enough to ask them to think about how scientists make decisions, and to make them do exercises where they have to try to think like scientists. I'm silly enough to make them do research in the scholarly scientific literature, and to ask them to make some kind of sense of some of the articles they find there.

They may start out seeing my course as a way to dodge science, but by the end they are not as scared as science as they were at the beginning. (Or perhaps, they've shifted their fear to philosophy instead …)

Am I right that my course might be making the situation just a little bit better, or am I living a lie?

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