Friday, March 21, 2008

Bruce Alberts on Science Education

 
Bruce Alberts, the former President of the National Academies (USA), has now taken over as Editor-in-Chief of Science.1 Judging by his editorial in this week's issue [Considering Science Education] there could be some interesting times ahead in the Science offices.

Here's part of what Bruce has to say about science education ...
I consider science education to be critically important to both science and the world, and I shall frequently address this topic on this page. Let’s start with a big-picture view. The scientific enterprise has greatly advanced our understanding of the natural world and has thereby enabled the creation of countless medicines and useful devices. It has also led to behaviors that have improved lives. The public appreciates these practical benefits of science, and science and scientists are generally respected, even by those who are not familiar with how science works or what exactly it has discovered.

But society may less appreciate the advantage of having everyone aquire, as part of their formal education, the ways of thinking and behaving that are central to the practice of successful science: scientific habits of mind. These habits include a skeptical attitude toward dogmatic claims and a strong desire for logic and evidence. As famed astronomer Carl Sagan put it, science is our best “bunk” detector. Individuals and societies clearly need a means to logically test the onslaught of constant clever attempts to manipulate our purchasing and political decisions. They also need to challenge what is irrational, including the intolerance that fuels so many regional and global conflicts.

So how does this relate to science education? Might it be possible to encourage, across the world, scientific habits of mind, so as to create more rational societies everywhere? In principle, a vigorous expansion of science education could provide the world with such an opportunity, but only if scientists, educators, and policy-makers redefine the goals of science education, beginning with college-level teaching. Rather than only conveying what science has discovered about the natural world, as is done now in most countries, a top priority should be to empower all students with the knowledge and practice of how to think like a scientist.
Those of you who have been reading Sandwalk know that this is exactly how I think science education should be fixed. We need to teach students how to think like a scientist. The facts of science are important but they aren't nearly as important as the way in which scientific facts are determined. Science is a way of knowing—that's what students need to learn.

I think we have a long way to go. At SciBarCamp last weekend we discussed the ten things everyone needs to know about science. One of the things on my original list was that science is a way of knowing [Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Science]. Before the meeting someone had written a comment on the poster to the effect that science may not be the only way of knowing and another participate wrote in that "it kinda was."

When it came time for the discussion the moderator handed out three topics to each of the panel members. One of them got the topic "Science doesn't have all the answers" and I was given the topic "Science has all the answers." When it came time for me to present I said that science doesn't have all the answers and nobody I know claims otherwise.

I changed the topic to "science is a way of knowing" and suggested that it may be the only way of knowing. Considerable debate followed. It was clear that many participants were new to this topic since the old arguments about love and morality came up.

At the end of the session, the moderator wrapped up and concluded that there was consensus on three things everyone needs to know about science. One of them was "science doesn't have all the answers." This is completely wrong, in my opinion. Of course, science doesn't have all the answers. The real question is whether it has all the questions.


1. In the interests of full disclosure, I should reveal that he was also my graduate supervisor. (See Bruce Alberts in Toronto.)

9 comments :

  1. Of course, science doesn't have all the answers. The real question is whether it has all the questions.
    Now there's a quote worth stealing.

    BTW - your link to the Science article is to a UToronto-specific gateway. The straight link is http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/reprint/319/5870/1589.pdf

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  2. The other academic disciplines might be a bit confounded by the discovery that science is the only way of knowing. . . . So presumably, before what, about 1000 years ago when science we know it came into being, no one knew anything? And then of course, it depends on what one wants knowledge about, and what kind of knowledge one wants.

    In other words, I think the claim is a bit overblown, and needs some refining.

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  3. anonymous says,

    The other academic disciplines might be a bit confounded by the discovery that science is the only way of knowing. . . .

    Feel free to offer up any other way of knowing that might qualify.

    I maintain that almost all disciplines utilize the scientific way of knowing.

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  4. Rather than only conveying what science has discovered about the natural world, as is done now in most countries, a top priority should be to empower all students with the knowledge and practice of how to think like a scientist

    Exactly. Couldn't agree more.

    I maintain that almost all disciplines utilize the scientific way of knowing.

    Almost all? So there are other ways of knowing then? It sounds like by 'science' you mean 'empiricism', and that we're going to get into the old empiricism versus rationalism debate.

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  5. ian b gibson asks,

    Almost all? So there are other ways of knowing then?

    No, not at all.

    There are some disciplines that don't use any valid way of knowing. The entire discipline is nothing but quackery.

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  6. The real question is whether it has all the questions.

    Exactly, this is how say theoretical physicists loosely define science. The reverse definition of philosophers that is relevant in a modified form, knowledge as validated "beliefs", maps into questions. This is communicable knowledge.

    Then we have the gray area of large quantities of data that could be treated this way but isn't for practical reasons, unvalidated possibilities, or the kind of successful heuristics that individuals may collect akin to science method.

    But again it maps into those larger questions. It has always seemed like a more fruitful perspective.

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  7. Can you clarify this part:
    "(...) there was consensus on three things everyone needs to know about science. One of them was "science doesn't have all the answers." This is completely wrong, in my opinion. Of course, science doesn't have all the answers."

    'cause it looks like you're saying this:
    -(...)there was consensus that everyone should know X
    -This is wrong
    -Of course X

    ...and the part of my brain that took Logic is now confused.

    Did you mean "this is wrong" to say that you don't agree that everyone should know that science doesn't have all the answers (because it's already obvious to you)? Then that still doesn't take away the fact that the majority of people *did* think that. So you meant to say that you didn't agree with the majority (of people present)? Yes? No?
    But you're not saying that (people should know/think that) science *does* have all the answers either, which is what one could also interpret from part of the statement I quoted. See, confusing! (And I was there! I shouldn't be confused!)

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  8. Eva asks,

    Did you mean "this is wrong" to say that you don't agree that everyone should know that science doesn't have all the answers (because it's already obvious to you)? Then that still doesn't take away the fact that the majority of people *did* think that. So you meant to say that you didn't agree with the majority (of people present)? Yes? No?

    Hmmm ... that's a very convoluted sentence. Let's see if I can explain myself.

    We were talking about things that everyone should know about science. I didn't have the impression that there were people in the room who thought that science has all the answers. Surely that group was smarter than that? Lot's of talks addressed issues where science doesn't have the answer. For example, in physics we're well aware of problems with string theory and the origin of the universe and in biology we can't even agree if consciousness exists.

    Science doesn't have all the answers. That's a trivial truth. I find it extremely unlikely that the people on the room thought that science had all the answers.

    That's why I changed your question to "science is a way of knowing." In other words, does science have all the questions? This is a very different topic than asking whether science has all the answers.

    The point was to discuss whether there was any other valid way of knowing about the natural universe. I don't think there is, but the vast majority of people in the room disagreed with me.

    Most of them seemed to be very confused about the idea that science is a process that can be applied to many different fields, including human behavior.

    According to your criterion of majority rules, the thing we'd like everyone to know about science is that it is only one of many different (unspecified) ways of knowing about the natural universe. I disagree with the majority of people at SciBarCamp.

    Don't you find it strange that a group made up mostly of artists, futurists, science fiction authors, software designers and entrepreneurs, should reach a decision on what everyone should know about science?

    But you're not saying that (people should know/think that) science *does* have all the answers either, which is what one could also interpret from part of the statement I quoted. See, confusing! (And I was there! I shouldn't be confused!)

    The entire conference was confusing so join the crowd.

    I got the distinct impression from many sessions that most people did not understand what science was all about. This led to a great deal of confusion. The "two culture" phenomenon was very much in evidence. Most people were talking past each other.

    We need more conferences like this because the problem with understanding science is much more serious that I imagined.

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  9. Thanks for clarifying! I thin we were also talking past one another regarding "science is a way of knowing" and whether it does or doesn't have all the answers.

    "I didn't have the impression that there were people in the room who thought that science has all the answers."

    I didn't either. But I think some might have feared that others (outside of the room/event) did, and that's why they wanted to emphasize "science doesn't have all the answers" as something that everyone (not just the people present, who already knew that) should be aware of.

    Looking at the individual statements that were put under the "doesn't have all the answers" umbrella (I'll type it all out later, once I have time), half of them (that's two statements, with one "seconded" by someone) describe a scenario in which science isn't the only way of knowing, and the others are more about uncertainties in science. So I guess that could have been two groups, in retrospect, and neither would have been a majority.
    Also, Dan Falk commented that the phrase "science doesn't have all the answers" might lead to the interpretation that science is a body of knowledge, which contradicts the whole "science is a process" thing. So all in all, the whole phrase was misleading because it could be interpreted in different ways.

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