Saturday, October 4, 2008

Why "scientists" don't get it.

Article from "The Scientist," Volume 22, Issue 10, Page 29

"What makes Science 'Science'" by James Williams

As a science educator, I train science graduates to become science teachers. Over the past two years I've surveyed their understanding of key terminology and my findings reveal a serious problem. Graduates, from a range of science disciplines and from a variety of universities in Britain and around the world, have a poor grasp of the meaning of simple terms and are unable to provide appropriate definitions of key scientific terminology. So how can these hopeful young trainees possibly teach science to children so that they become scientifically literate? How will school-kids learn to distinguish the questions and problems that science can answer from those that science cannot and, more importantly, the difference between science and pseudoscience?

Undergrad course in history and philosophy of science
Here are some of the data from the 74 graduates that I've surveyed to date:

• 76% equated a fact with 'truth' and 'proven'

• 23% defined a theory as 'unproven ideas' with less than half (47%) recognizing a theory as a well evidenced exposition of a natural phenomenon

• 34% defined a law as a rule not to be broken, and forty-one percent defined it as an idea that science fully supports.

• Definitions of 'hypothesis' were the most consistent, with 61% recognizing the predictive, testable nature of hypotheses.


Only a few of the graduates had studied any history and philosophy of science, and therein lies the problem. The majority had high quality degrees and some had doctorates in a science discipline, so it wasn't that they were not well qualified in science. It was just that their study of science had been utilitarian, a means to an end with the end being a practicing scientist. They had not been given any grounding or instruction on what makes science 'science.' It was not their fault: history and philosophy of science was an optional part of their degree programs and many could not see the point of it.


(End of quote).

That's the exact conclusion I'd come to in explaining how so many "scientists" can be so completely ignorant when it comes to the nuances of philosophy of science. Of course, this author goes on to lump "creationists" in with the anti-science crowd, but that only assumes his particular philosophical definition of science -- and as with all issues in philosophy, definitions are malleable and debatable. The point is, scientists aren't being educated in the issues of philosophy of science -- why in the world do we trust their opinion on things they've neither studied, practiced, nor shown any competence in, as a group?

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