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.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.
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.
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.)