Why the Philosophy of Science Matters

The central tenets of science enhance communication and our influence on society.

By | October 1, 2008

You might expect that newly minted science graduates - who presumably think of themselves as scientists, and who I'd thought of as scientists - would have a well-developed sense of what science is. So it's pretty shocking to discover that a large proportion of them don't have a clue. At least that's the case in the UK, going on the evidence of our Opinion author James Williams ("What Makes Science 'Science'?"). He found that a sizeable proportion of science graduates entering teacher training couldn't define what is a scientific fact, law or hypothesis. One young innocent, for instance, defined scientific theory as "an idea about something, not necessarily true." If that isn't playing into the hands of creationists, then I don't know what is!

Williams' findings demand a thorough assessment of what's being taught to science students. If, as seems likely, university science departments are churning out technically sophisticated but intellectually stunted drones that don't understand the underpinnings of science, then urgent reforms to the curriculum are required because such people aren't really scientists at all.

Those students who go on to grad school will presumably be exposed to aspects of the philosophy of science, if only through engaging in research. But this is not so for the group that Williams is working with, trainee teachers. It is an imperative that they and others that are headed into non-research careers have a strong foundation in the philosophy of science. These newly minted graduates are the frontline in promoting rational scientific thought to the community at large - in schools, banks, offices, publishing houses - wherever they take up employment.

Williams' calls for a core course in the history and philosophy of science to be taught to all science undergraduates strikes a chord. I'd add that a further course on the philosophy of biology should be required of students in the life and medical sciences. This is happening in some institutions, as you can read on the lively discussion ongoing at The Scientist Community ("Undergrad course in history and philosophy of science"). Please, if you have experience of effective courses, either as a teacher or student, contribute to the thread.

It's not just undergraduates that lack knowledge of the history and philosophy of science. To be honest I very much doubt that I'd get passing marks in a term paper on the subject and a lot of researchers - I'd venture to guess most - would be in the same boat.

One giveaway of how scientists think is to look at their everyday, informal interactions. Our Community website and numerous science blogging sites provide the opportunity to apraise this. Is the discussion logical, objective, disinterested, cautious? No! It turns out that scientists are as disdainful, vitriolic even, as everyone else, even in discussions about science.

Here's a recent examples from our site: "I absolutely do not accept the proposal above that an ignorant idiot serving up pious horsemanure should be coddled for his or her blithering idiot beliefs. Contempt is the only appropriate communication to such people...."

This is mild in comparison to the exchanges on other sites.

Scientists failing to adhere to the tenets of scientific discourse is beautifully captured in the novel Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosley. He writes on the treatment of Lamarkian biologist Paul Kammerer: "But what is striking about the objections to Kammerer on the part of mainstream biologists... was that they did not point out rationally, as they might so easily have done, the flaws in his arguments and procedures; they seemed intent on impugning emotionally his honesty and even his sanity; they claimed that he was 'cooking' his results - even those that were so obviously tentative."

Sound familiar? This kind of abuse and the utilitarian certainty that dogs scientific discussions is a real problem. It debases the unique nature of scientific thought, and will diminish the long-term impact of science.

Let's get the interactions amongst ourselves right. Integrity, humility and respect layered on top of our necessary skepticism will encourage open dialog and creativity, and provide a solid foundation upon which to persuade the rest of the world about the validity of science. It's time to get back to our guiding philosophy.




Posts: 1

October 7, 2008

Re. "Why the Philosophy of Science Matters" (Richard Gallagher, The Scientist, October.\n\nIt is fascinating to watch this issue crop up 2 or 3 times a decade -- only to see it disappear off the radar screen as rapidly as it popped up. Gallagher is correct of course, but so what? Is anything ever done about it?\n\nFor almost 3 decades I taught upper-level-undergraduate and graduate-level courses in population dynamics and statistics and experimental design in the biology department of a major Canadian research university. In all my courses, it was exceedingly easy to baffle and frustrate almost every student. Others might want to try this:\n\nPresent your students with a simple observation that they can appreciate and understand, irrespective of their disciplinary loyalties (e.g. malaria cases in country X have been seen to increase over period Y; a male chimpanzee has much larger testes than the much larger gorilla). Ask the students to construct 4 or 5 hypotheses (you'll have to explain what that means!) that could account for these observations and then ask them to rank the hypotheses in terms of likelihood, explaining the theoretical basis of those rankings; and finally, ask them to devise observations or, preferably, experiments that could falsify each of the hypotheses.\n\nAmong the many hundreds of students I taught, more than 95% would readily admit that they had NEVER been exposed to this kind of critical-thinking exercise during their entire undergraduate and graduate careers. Not only are they utterly unused to constructing sets of competing hypotheses, they lack even the most basic scientific approaches to rank those hypotheses. But this kind of thinking should be at the very core of scientific training! To move beyond this very preliminary and basic stage to the skill sets required to evaluate approaches to testing and to assess the quality and reliability of datasets was to move students into never-before-explored spheres of the scientific process.\n\nThe reason for this educational failing is obvious: universities are far more adept at teaching students WHAT to think than HOW to think. And the reason for that is also obvious: designing a curriculum to teach critical-thinking skills in science is bloody hard work and, as well, involves a lot of tricky trans-disciplinary considerations. It is just SO much simpler to teach THINGS, even though most of the things taught in a modern science curriculum are just the current “facts de jour". This simple approach leads to curricula that are bloated, repetitive, and hierarchically flat (many senior-level courses are no more challenging than first-year classes), and sometimes leads to quite irrational decisions ("if micro has 2 courses then botany has to have 2 courses"). It can also lead to wonderfully offensive decisions: we'll have undergraduate courses in phycology or mycology, say, because we have a phycologist or a mycologist on the faculty; but when those people retire, the courses are retired with them, making it clear why they were offered in the first place.\n\nIf any faculty member is naive enough to spend time on the design of a critical-thinking curriculum, he/she will quickly be branded by colleagues as some sort of prickly wuss, and will just as quickly be moved to the bottom of the evaluative hierarchy in the department. If you present university or departmental administrations with a case for such a curriculum, they will instantly trot out the generic mission statement, indistinguishable across institutions, extolling the unwavering commitment of the institution to quality teaching. But hey -- most of us learn quite early in life (by experience!) that it is far more reliable to assess people by what they actually do than by what they say they have done or will do.\n\nWatch the editorial space in "The Scientist" -- this issue should re-appear in about 5 years.\n\nStephen M Smith
Avatar of: Ellen Hunt

Ellen Hunt

Posts: 199

October 14, 2008

Richard, a theory is not necessarily true. A theory is the best explanation that has been agreed upon at a particular time. I assume that you do not subscribe to the phlogiston theory of heat, right? Newtonian mechanics is true, but only at speeds that are insignificant proportion of the speed of light. \n\nString theory is not necessarily true, nor is the standard model of physics. Aristotle's ideas about the laws of motion were partly right. Etcetera. \n\nSo that "innocent" is quite correct that a theory is not necessarily true. \n\nWe develop new theories from time to time, and those supersede the old ones because they are better. Theories are just that, theories. They are hypotheses that have significant evidence to back them up.

October 14, 2008

I welcome definitions of:\n\nfact, theory, truth, science\n\ngenerally accepted by the contemporary scientific community.
Avatar of: vetury sitaramam

vetury sitaramam

Posts: 69

October 18, 2008

Biologists seem to be rather late comers in discussions and discourses on science philosophy and method of science. However, many things that matter to biologists and the community around them is the sociology than the philosophy underlying these approaches. Inability to tackle the sociological questions, valid in their own right, makes a biologist resort to the assertion that science is 'the' thing and the rest is for bums. In fact, science has very little to offer in most sociological dilemmas that confront many solutions. Being scientific and being rational are not the same and since being rational and rationalizing has a very thin dividing line. To convey the ambiguities that lie in the transition between science and sociology actually is a rewarding task in my experience in handling biotehnology teaching over two decades. Those who have answers invariably failed to get through to students. Open-ended dialogues were aften a learning experience to the teacher than the students with a correspondingly palpable effect on communication.\nI would say, do not assert. Students and colleagues alike do not need that.Does philosophy of science matter? To very few. Do you need to assert philosophy of science and the rationality of science? Experience and not preaching will probably decide that.
Avatar of: TONY SOMERA


Posts: 6

October 18, 2008

What I missed as an undergraduate was a direct succession of discovery from the earliest foundational events to the latest with a thorough grounding in each and every instrument used to the extent possible. Taking a critical look at experiments and their interpretation would have been wonderful. Instead I was groomed to be a fairly mindless drone. Not very wise.
Avatar of: DH Stevans

DH Stevans

Posts: 18

October 27, 2008

"... they seemed intent on impugning emotionally his honesty and even his sanity..."\n\nRichard,\n Actually, your call for rational discourse identifies the true reason for science students' lack of interest in philosophy of science courses: intolerance in science. This is the 21st century form of intolerance, though accompanied by the usual hallmarks of scoffing and ridicule.\n\n This poor attitude toward philosophy and religion comes directly from history of science classes. Science students ask: "Why should we listen to philosophers, when we are assured by science teachers and writers that scientific knowledge is the only acceptable form of knowledge?" \n\n Yes, it is urgent that we restore the credentials of rational philosophical and even religious discussions for science students. But even more importantly, if science writers and teachers continue to scoff and ridicule these discussions as irrational and irrelevant, then they should remember the warning of Bronowski, against the establishment of "monstrous certainty".\n\n"The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this [principle] was being worked out, there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s, it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it ? the ascent of man against the throwback to the despots' belief that they have absolute certainty. ... Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken." ."\nThe Ascent of Man 1973 by J. Bronowski\n\nDH Stevans-

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