The new science?

September 12, 2008 at 7:45 pm | Posted in British Politics, Education | 3 Comments

This isn’t something I write very often, but there’s an excellent posting at CentreRight on the question of whether the teaching of creationism should be allowed in schools. Such is the strength of creationism’s association with the dinosaur-denying, retrograde evangelism practised among US fundamentalists, this debate all too often gets entangled in dogma, flame wars and white noise, but on this occasion the author pursues a line of thinking that’s both refreshing and endearingly idealistic.

The author rightly asserts that a science which aims to extend our knowledge of the world in a rational, systematic and evidence-based way should not allow itself to be muddled by superstition. However, he argues that our schools should embrace a study of science which is broader and more inclusive than that:

If my view of science could be taken as given, then school science classes would, by definition, not be the place to discuss the possibility of supernatural events – the whole point of such classes would be to see how far we could get without supernatural agency.  However, it seems to me that school science classes should not be as pigeon-holed as this.  It would not be out of place in some school science classes to discuss the political implications of global warming, the ethics of abortion, the social issues around MMR scares, or (I submit) issues in philosophy of science (such as instrumentalist accounts of scientific models – cf Bishop Berkeley – or the merits or otherwise of Intelligent Design theories in the development of biological engineering) or indeed questions relating to the origins of the physical universe (creationism/accident/no-beginning universe) and even to the origins of humankind (Darwinian evolution, Lamarckian theories, game theoretic accounts, Young Earth Creationism – some of these having strong empirical support, others virtual empirical refutation, and that is of course something that should be pointed out).

You see, it seems to me that the point of teaching science in schools is not, primarily, to equip children with a body of scientific knowledge that they can carry through to the next stage.  Most children will not go on to be chemists or physicists or whatever.  So it is not important that we teach science strictly in accordance with the no-supernatural-agencies axiom that I mentioned or that we delimit science from non-science in other ways (indeed, the question of the delimiting of science might be one of those topics worth discussing).  We want children to attain some grasp of the nature of the world, to learn how to think according to the scientific method, to be animated by wonder about the world, to learn sufficient basics to inform their practical lives, to have enough grounding that they can go on to further study if they so choose.

What he’s proposing here is certainly not a science lesson that would be familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a GCSE in it. Instead, he’s essentially arguing that schools should teach a philosophy of science, and what makes this idea so radical is it would require moving beyond simply fiddling with bunsen burners and graph paper and instead grapple with the deeper questions of epistemology – of knowledge itself. His boldness deserves a lot of credit, as does the implicit trust in the abilities of pupils and teachers to rise to such material.

Whether this approach is desirable, however, is another matter. If Britain’s going to remain competitive in a global workplace, an excellence in science is pretty fundamental to our economic and technological futures. Furthermore, since there’s a growing consensus that even the earliest interventions in a child’s life are important, I suspect they’re better-prepared for a career in science by mastering the formal, methodical and disciplined working practices required from an early age. Put simply, there aren’t enough hours in the school day, and by introducing ethics, social or philosophical issues you threaten to distract from that which may be more valuable.

That doesn’t mean the idea should necessarily be abandoned, however. Why not scrap religious education as it is taught now and replace it with something that addresses some of the topics Lilico writes about? I would imagine a student could develop far greater critical & analytical skills trying to grapple with questions about the nature of existence than simply learning some staid old anecdotes about relgious dress & observance. Either way, this is the most stimulating thing I’ve read on a conservative blog in a very, very long time.

Image by Flickr user exquisitur (Creative Commons)



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  1. Or indeed, just broading out the many PSME style classes (Personal, social and moral education, IIRC) that tackle these sort of issues in a much more apt atmosphere. I’m all for talking about these sort of things, but in an environment of debate and philosophical understanding where everyone’s opinions are equal. I don’t really see a necessity for moving in to new territory, I think the territory is there…it, these social/moral/philosophical lessons, need to be nurtured and made more credible. Less shoe-horning of irrelevant subjects in to science, and perhaps a better examination of people’s abilities to engage with ethical and social issues.

    At least this way people would be positively marked for understanding and willingness to accept alternate theories, rather than the current manner of science exams dictating the social norms of the day, and be damned if you disagree.

  2. Absolutely. I’m uncertain as to whether science exams really dictate the social norms of the day, but that’s mostly because it’s been a good 8 years since I took an exam in it. But it’s certainly true that we’re best served by Science lessons focusing on method, and allowing the theory to play a part in something separate like PSME/PSRE etc.

  3. […] of his suggested approach or not (and I’ve some related thoughts on the subject here), he certainly doesn’t deserve the treatment he’s received for merely offering his own […]

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