Science is not a frog

enjoy_scienceby Steven Paul Leiva

I am the author of a science fiction novel, Traveling in Space, and there is a bit of an irony in that. When I was in high school and college I was lucky to achieve even a D in science courses, and to this day any math beyond the four basics — addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division — puts me into a cold sweat. Even the four basics would bother me if some kind strangers had not invented the hand held electronic calculator.

Granted there is no hard science in my novel and the only math involved was the word count, but still — a science fiction novel? I mean, any dummy can write a mystery, just create an amateur sleuth who has the same profession you have (so you can “write what you know”) and throw a dead body in their path. But science fiction? Shouldn’t the writer at least know how to solve an equation?

Not necessarily, I have to say in self-defense, because although science in my formative years would often make me sick to my stomach (and not just because I was dissecting a frog), in my adult years the idea of science and its rational method, and the history of science and its incredible achievements in pushing upward the Homo sapiens species, have been the most delightful and important meme to joyfully meander in my mind. I date this conversion from watching Jacob Bronowski’s 1973 BBC series, The Ascent of Man (broadcast in America over PBS)

In this 13-part documentary series Dr. Bronowski presented his personal view of the flowering of human intelligence, especially through science, in an engaging and compelling manner that must have made his lectures in classrooms standing room only — as opposed to my science classes which were sleeping room only.

The Ascent of Man excited me about where humankind had come from and, more important, about where it might go. I began to understand the value of science and its method, not just in leading to technological toys we all enjoy and benefit from, but leading to an expansion of what we know and a maturation of our shared self. After Bronowski, I discovered Carl Sagan, especially his early books such as The Cosmic Connection, and went on from there to enjoy the great science writing we’ve had for the past forty years by such authors as Francis Crick, Paul Churchland, Robert Wright, Jonathan Weiner, Steven Pinker, Brian Green, Natalie Angier, Edward O. Wilson, Antonio Damasio, and, of course, Richard Dawkins, among others. Although the Ascent of Man and these books certainly include specific facts and data, what they really convey is the general personality of science, the overall thrust of what its method of inquiry can achieve, and the sense of wonder that the exploration and growing awareness of the universe around us — and within us — can engender.

I’ve been thinking about all this recently while listening to conversations about public school education, especially two of the more interesting ones. One is cultural, centering on the teaching of evolution and the proposed teaching of what I can only refer to as counter-evolution. The other concerns the pragmatic push to turn around our country’s poor performance in high school science and math scores, so we will have the required scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technocrats to keep America competitive in the future.

Certain participants in the first conversation seem to propose that we teach little or no science to anyone as it may offend someone; contributors to the second feel we should require more science for everyone in the hope that we can create many someones who will brilliantly make America economically strong again. Neither, it seems to me, hits the mark. The first, not teaching science or teaching all “theoretical” comers — as if science were a democracy — is too absurd a debate to need a comment from me. The second, required, intense, heavy on the details, math and science courses, sounds fine but I believe such requirements turn more students off than on. Let’s face it, learning just the dry facts and details of a science is hard going and many students, indeed most, might spend their time in class experiencing the same cold sweats I did, or, worse, be led to a hateful rejection.

And yet, science education in this country needs improvement, not just so we can leap ahead of Europe and Asia in money making technology, but so we can have an informed population who, like it or not and for some time to come, will face ballot measures asking them to make general decisions on such subjects as abortion, stem cell research, sexual preferences (and the rights desired or denied in such preferences), genetic modification, climate change and energy issues, and a number of other subjects that are best considered by an electorate with some science literacy. They will also be asked to elect candidates who will be tasked to make many specific decisions requiring more than a basic understanding of science. But how can the electorate judge a candidate’s level of understanding if they have little or none of their own?

I would like to propose an idea. It comes not only from my own history of cold sweats in science classes, but from the warm glow I felt in classes in the arts. First, we should stop requiring for high school graduation courses in several of the major sciences, rigorously testing students on their understanding of very specific details and minutia of biology, physics, and chemistry. These classes should be elective and only for those students who truly want to study a particular science. I suggest this, though, only if what is required for graduation are two other courses: Science Appreciation and the History of Science. These should be taken within the first two years of high school, and maybe previewed in middle school. For what is the use of learning facts and data and details of individual sciences, and never learning what science, in its essence, truly is? Is it a philosophy, a modern religion, something only geeks care for, a mystical understanding of the fabric of the universe, or just a very boring set of dull facts?

Science should not be treated like a frog in formaldehyde — it should be understood and appreciated before you pull its guts out.

I have obviously taken this idea from long established art and music appreciation and history courses. Just as not everyone can draw or play music, not everyone is going to become a scientist, engineer or mathematician — no matter how badly the country might need them. And just as life is richer if you have an appreciation for art and music, our country and society would be richer if everyone had an appreciation of science — what it is and does and how it has spurred on, in Bronowski’s wonderful phrase, the Ascent of Man.

Science scares people. A knowledgeable understanding that science is simply a well-honed method of inquiry into, and discovery of, the laws of nature that discourages in its conclusions prejudices, biases, and subjectivity, and thus can better reveal — and revel in — the true awe and wonder of the universe, is the best way to alleviate the fear. Certainly far better than the thud-thud-thud of facts to be memorized. Good science appreciation and history courses taught by enthusiastic instructors could well open and inform minds among the majority of students, and inspire some of those students — maybe more than one might think — to pursue with vigor careers in science and its related fields. Those are the students for the specific science classes of details and facts. Well motivated, I am willing to bet, those students will not sit in those classes suffering cold sweats.

_____

Steven Paul Leiva is a novelist, essayist, and a refugee from Hollywood. His latest novel, Traveling in Space, a science fiction first contact novel written from the point-of-view of the aliens, is now available as an audiobook directed by the author.

66 thoughts on “Science is not a frog

  1. I suggest this, though, only if what is required for graduation are two other courses: Science Appreciation and the History of Science.

    I strongly disagree with that.

    I did develop an interest and appreciation of science, thanks to a sixth grade teacher. And I did find much of interest in my own readings of the history of science. But I would have absolutely hated formal classes in “Science Appreciation” and “History of Science”. I would have found those a huge turn-off.

    Science is a participatory activity. It is not a spectator sport.

    I sympathize with the author’s unpleasant experience in dissecting a frog. I would have probably found that unpleasant, too.

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  2. Oddly enough I was fine with science and maths at school, but art and literature brought me out in cold sweats.

    Even now I feel a cold chill down my spine when I hear that dread word “Discuss”.

    Maths and science had right and wrong answers, but art and Literature subject had – well I don’t know to this day what they had.

    I get bad marks and I didn’t know what I had done wrong or what I should do different next time.

    Although strangely I loved books and poems and art,. I just didn’t know how to write about them.

    I can’t even blame bad teachers, because one of my English teachers went on to win the Booker Prize.

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  3. Interesting. I find it strange that we give such a gentle introduction to nearly every other subject, but with science, you either already love it as you jump in, or you’re forever barred as someone who’s just not the type of person who could ever do it. I can’t speak to high school, but I know that if we treated Philosophy classes the way we do science, there would be no introductory courses. Students would simply dive right into analyzing translations of Greek texts against the original and doing reports on punctuation choices of various translators, or working through first order predicate logic. It just seems strange that the only equivalents to introductory courses for sciences are those which are strictly for non-majors, meaning, they’re built with no intention of exciting or engaging new students.

    While I don’t agree that Science Appreciation and the History of Science should replace all lab sciences outright, I don’t see why they’re not part of the curriculum at all. Not everyone gets that good sixth grade teacher that teaches them to appreciate and care about science – why not give students multiple chances to have that experience you were so lucky to have?

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  4. Hi Steven,

    That’s a nice post which correctly points to some flaws in how science is often taught in schools. While agreeing with your diagnosis, however, I’m less sure of your cure.

    The problem with much science teaching is that it is about what scientists have found, whereas science is as much a process about how to learn about the world. The kids can participate in that process at kid-level, just as for reading and writing we get kids to learn by writing their own stories. Most teaching of science does not get kids to participate in science, but just gets them to learn what scientists have discovered, rather than getting them to make their own observations and apply scientific methods and learn about the process.

    That, of course, would take good teachers, carefully structured activities, small groups, lots of time, and lots of support in terms of materials and apparatus, so you can see why it is the first thing that schools tend to drop, in favour of coaching larger classes for the bookwork on the exam.

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  5. This reminds me of that immortal line in “A Serious Man” by the Coen Brothers.

    “I understand all the stories! It’s just the mathematics that’s difficult!”

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  6. I agree with Neil, above. The very essence of science is observation and measurement. If you don’t do those things you can never get a ‘feel’ for what science is really about. Try studying the history of literature without reading literature itself and you not only will have an impoverished experience, you will never understand literature.

    Speaking for myself, the lab work I did was transformative. I still remember acutely the joy and surprise of doing accurate measurements, doing the calculations and discovering that it made such good sense.

    Studying only the history of science or appreciation of science would never convey the excitement of those experiences. All you will do is neuter science and diminish its place in society still further.

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  7. I find that a lot of the books on science that are around these days are too full of axe-grinding, barrow-pushing and pup-selling.

    The books I have found inspiring are Einstein’s “Relativity” and Feynman’s “Six Easy Pieces” and “Six not-so-easy Pieces”. Oh and from my childhood, that lost classic childrens book on evolution “Whirlaway”, by HCF Morant. Pity it went out of print.

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  8. Hi Steven, I agree for the most part with the problem you raise, though I wonder if it is more about the style of how education is taught in general (whether science or the arts). I don’t think there is a one size fits all kind of curricula or teaching method that suits everyone. I can’t stand memorization myself, and I think that requirement is a bit strange in science where you normally have access to books and tables. I always found the idea of treating a periodic table as a cheat sheet sort of misses the point of the table. It would seem better to reward people for understanding how to use it well, what information it contains, rather than if they memorized it.

    I certainly would like to see history of science (and philosophy) courses in school. Those would (or should) in themselves act as “appreciation” courses and not be simply names and dates.

    In addition there could be introductory courses in science that are more about learning the methods and applying them to questions, rather than learning the body of knowledge in those fields. Perhaps, one could go so far as to not make them for grades at all, but pass/fail, in order to remove the stress of having to learn so much, and so kill interest in learning at all.

    Maybe science courses in general could be approached in a more “Montessori” style, allowing students to pursue the questions that interest them, with teachers assisting students with their analysis of the problem and designing (fun) experiments. The knowledge will come through repetition rather than cramming.

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  9. A knowledgeable understanding that science is simply a well-honed method of inquiry into, and discovery of, the laws of nature that discourages in its conclusions prejudices, biases, and subjectivity, and thus can better reveal — and revel in — the true awe and wonder of the universe, is the best way to alleviate the fear.

    While I love science(which is why my pseudonym is ‘labnut’), I question the reverence for science which borders on the religious(ironically). To be sure, science confers great advantages:
    – science is the source of our technology;
    – technology provides powerful tools;
    – the tools
    — multiply productivity;
    — satisfy needs and reduce suffering;
    — increase leisure time and opportunity;
    — increase lifespan so that we can enjoy the leisure and opportunity.

    This sounds like a no-brainer. Of course science is good and deserving of reverence.
    But then the facts get in the way(and scientismists love facts?). Take this Gallup study in 2011(http://bit.ly/1ws5Dtm).
    It measured positive emotions world-wide. Here are the top ten countries with the most positive emotions:

    % responding ‘yes’ to questions about positive emotions:
    85 Panama
    85 Paraguay
    84 El Salvador
    84 Venezuela
    83 Trinidad and Tobago
    83 Thailand
    82 Guatemala
    82 Philippines
    81 Ecuador
    81 Costa Rica

    Now let’s compare this with the wealthy countries:

    85 Panama (best)
    46 Singapore (worst)

    77 United Kingdom
    77 Lesotho
    76 United States
    76 China
    76 Swaziland
    74 Germany
    74 France

    Swazis(GDP per capita $3,457) have more positive emotions than Germans($47,893) or the French($45,123)!
    I know this is Scientism Week and we should be bowing and scraping before the great God of Science but there is something wrong here. Some poor and less advanced countries are happier than the technologically advanced countries.

    Every time I need an antibiotic I know science is good but these results tell me that science is not everything and it is not enough. Perhaps it is time we start thinking about those extra ingredients that help us to achieve happiness, whatever they are.

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  10. Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man was important to me in my youth as well; besides watching it, and again in reruns, I’ve read the book version every few years since, and will return to it again.
    Bronowski was what we then called a “Universal Man.” He did work in two fields (physics and biology as I remember), wrote poetry, published a study on William Blake. One gets the sense from him that the pursuit of science not only involved passion but, oddly, compassion as well.
    The math and science curricula in my middle and high schools were really not so bad – it was the teachers who turned me off. Back then, we were actually punished for getting ahead of the rest of the class, having to waste time doing the same practices over and over until the rest of the class caught up. At the time (and my understanding is that this is now again true), the assumption was that high school was about learning careers, not developing interests. The only fields in which this did not apply were the learning of certain arts and literature (which most educators knew did not hold much promise for careers), wherein the students – at least in my schools – were allowed freedom to explore. So I studied literature.
    I’m not sure how we could excite such exploration in the sciences, but certainly we should unleash those students who seem bent on it. That really requires teachers who know their science, are passionate about it, but also compassionate for their students as developing individuals. Ah, if only every science teacher could be a J. Bronowski!
    With the rise of Post-Modernity (following years of interdisciplinary squabbles over funding in the universities), intellectuals began declaring that the age of the Universal Person was over. Probably so. But if so, a great loss for all of us.

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  11. Well… I used to think the same about history of science, but I remember hearing in a skeptics guide to the universe podcast that studies have found that not to be an effective way of waking youngsters interest in science, so I’m not sure of the best way… One of them, I think, would be to have good science fiction books amongst the readings in English classes – Philip K. Dick, H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, to name just a few…
    I say this because I had a teacher of Portuguese (I’m Portuguese) in my 8th year (here obligatory school lasts 12 years now, but at that time it was only 9 years, I was 14 then), who gave us a list of books to choose one to read, and among them was Fahrenheit 451 (she had this theory that a good and well written foreign book with a good translation was better then a native bad and poorly written portuguese book). Well, Ray Bradbury won and many (or at least some) of my colleagues became science fiction fans and began being more interested in science. But I don’t know now, with all this frenzy of vampires and werewolves of today, if that would work…
    Hey, just a thought 😉

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  12. Paul,
    Hey, just a thought
    That is actually a valuable insight that deserves to be explored further. Science fiction can be seen as a mythic tale, in the following sense:

    We are accustomed to think of myths as the opposite of science. But in fact they are a central part of it: the part that decides its significance in our lives. So we very much need to understand them. Myths are not lies. Nor are they detached stories. They are imaginative patterns, networks of powerful symbols that suggest particular ways of interpreting the world. They shape its meaning.

    Mary Midgley – The Myths We Live By

    Science fiction has a valuable role in that it stimulates interest in science and places it in a very human, moral context. Some literal scientismists will object that the science is improbable, implausible or wrong. That hardly matters. We are all accustomed to interpreting myth as a suggestive account that arouses our imagination. Nobody would dream of applying a literal interpretation to the tale of Little Red Riding Hood.

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  13. Hi labnut,

    … I know science is good but these results tell me that science is not everything and it is not enough.

    Your post suggests that you have too wide a conception of science. Science is simply a tool that generates knowledge, that is all. It is not normative, it does not prescribe how to live, so why is your post written in terms of science? Science can indeed help to tell you about the consequences of society’s lifestyle choices, but those choices are still made by you, by people, not “by science”.

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  14. Carter,
    reveals the US is not performing poorly in comparison to other countries.
    Ugh, that is racist bias, to discard Blacks and Hispanics so that you can claim the US is not that bad.
    Are they not all Americans?

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  15. Coel,
    Your post suggests that you have too wide a conception of science

    That is a strange comment from someone who steadfastly maintains that mathematics is science.

    Science is simply a tool that generates knowledge, that is all. It is not normative
    I’m glad we agree on that point. Now we can drop the nonsense that science can answer moral questions :).

    My point is a very simple one. Science makes a valuable contribution to quality of life but that it is not enough. Scientism places an undue emphasis on the role of science to the detriment of other approaches.

    This is shown in your previous post where you claimed:

    …the same toolkit[science] and the same basic ideas about evidence work in all subject areas. Thus there are no “other ways of knowing

    Note that you said “in all subject areas” and “there are no ‘other ways of knowing’“. These are very strong claims.
    Thus it is you that is denying normative content in all subject areas. It is exactly this that makes scientism such a dangerous fiction.

    ‘Happily’ the denizens of Panama, Paraguay, El Salvador, Venezuela and Trinidad & Tobago have not subscribed to this myth.

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  16. Hi labnut,

    I’m glad we agree on that point. Now we can drop the nonsense that science can answer moral questions.

    Afraid not. Science can indeed (in principle) answer any properly posed moral questions.

    Scientism places an undue emphasis on the role of science to the detriment of other approaches.

    As I said, science is only about knowledge, it is not normative and does not prescribe a lifestyle choice. Thus you are erring — making an overly broad interpretation of science — in your linking scientism to the different lifestyles and outcomes in different countries.

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  17. Since the proper response is not available to me, I’d like to suggest, in a constructive way, that this is really repugnant.

    Also, your link lists “racial” groups in America compared to *all* citizens of other countries, while the description of the data says, “each race in America appears to average a little better than their racial cousins overseas”.

    Also, your link suggests that not comparing by race is “misleading”, which is the opposite of what it is. Even if you broke it down by shoe size and actually compared it to people with the same shoe sizes in other countries, you’re possibly creating a distortion by comparing different proportions of the overall population.

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  18. Interesting post. I happen to have a daughter who was “homeschooled” up until last year, when she went to a private school for her freshman year. Her first science class was called “Living Environment”. It seemed to be a mixture of science history, specific biology stuff (e.g. cell anatomy), simple lab work and exercises that connected ecological topics to the students’ everyday lives. I don’t know if she came away with a love of science, but she definitely enjoyed it more than expected. And she’s not nearly as worried about her upcoming science classes. A lot of it may be that she simply liked her teacher. But she also got a buzz from applying the scientific method.

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  19. I know how you feel. Possibly an Appreciation of Literature class is called for, one that details the art, without putting students on the spot. Let them come to books rather than have books thrust upon them, told they are “classics” and then made to feel bad if they don’t get a particular book, as if something is wrong with them. And then, maybe it is the quality of the teacher. You Booker winner may be a great writer, but possibly not a great teacher. You know tha old saying –“Those who can, do….”

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  20. I agree with you in regard to elementary school when kid’s minds are still open to experience and awe and the “wow” factor. But by high school, when minds seem to start to close, or let’s say, are more demanding in what wows them, if you throw only the data, the facts, the complexities at them, with out showing them the elegance, the inspiration, the happy accidents that are all a part of a method that works, then there may be nothing to arrest the attention of any but those who’s attention has already been arrested.

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  21. Sorry, I need to disagree with you both. For those who will NEVER find the data and lab work transformative, the story of science, well-told, and an understanding that it is not a belief system to have faith in, but a method of gaining knowledge to have trust in, might just prevent them from being prejudiced and biased against science. That is what I am talking about her. Science education not for those who are to become scientists, but an education about science for everyone else — each of who has a vote.

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  22. “Ah, if only every science teacher could be a J. Bronowski!
    With the rise of Post-Modernity (following years of interdisciplinary squabbles over funding in the universities), intellectuals began declaring that the age of the Universal Person was over. Probably so. But if so, a great loss for all of us.”

    I strongly agree. And thank you for your interesting reply.

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  23. As a long time friend and colleague of Ray Bradbury, I thank you for your comment. He would have been very pleased. Ray considered 451 is only truly science fiction work. And in it he was warning us of a possible future that he felt would make us smaller. Science fiction has led many to the sciences. (see my piece on Ray and mars here: http://www.kcet.org/updaily/socal_focus/commentary/ray-bradbury—-the-masterheart-of-mars.html), so you bring up a good point. My hope would be for history and appreciation of science courses taught with the thrill of a good SF story, incorporating possibly SF reading.

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  24. Apparently it disturbs you to be taken for a cheerleader for science, but your list of admirable science popularizers end with “of course, Richard Dawkins”, which speaks for itself. I would say that any further gestures towards teaching science to the young which does not underline the dangers of science, science as two-edged sword, science as a tool available to power, is irresponsible and naive. Scienceolatry always says that science is pure, the best way to the Truth, self-correcting, and its misuse is attributed to human motives and behaviors exterior to science. This is arguably analogous to saying that guns don’t kill people; people kill people and therefore there is no need to oppose or criticize the production and availability and obsession with guns. A new science curriculum cannot reproduce the rosy picture of science we were fed in the middle of the last century. The idea of the scientific dystopia should no longer be relegated to fiction. As much as we require young people to continue the work of research, so even more do we need to develop critical attitude toward the subservience of science to the domination of greed and finance, the eradication of individuality by science, the role of science in the development of weapons of mass destruction, the scientific recklessness that precipitated possibly irreversible climate change, etc.

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  25. labnut: “The very essence of science is observation and measurement.”

    This article is aimed on the issue of science-education, and I did not want to say anything about it. But, I must say something about labnut’s statement above, as I totally disagree with that statement.

    There are really two levels of problems.
    One, what is science?
    A. Science is the ‘pure human endeavors’ of knowing the nature.
    B. Science connotes the laws of nature.

    These two {A and B} are dramatically different. For B, science has nothing to do with the observation and measurement.

    Two, as a human endeavor, science is ‘definitely’ not restricted in ‘observation and measurement’. If anyone who ever tried to build a ‘scientific model’, he will know that 90% of the work is try to work out a ‘logic (not the logician’s logic)’ which is internally consistent; then, the remaining 10% is trying to check this model with the known or the upcoming observations and measurements.

    In my previous comment (https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/08/21/defending-scientism-mathematics-is-a-part-of-science/comment-page-2/#comment-6602 ), I have stated that physics laws can be derived ‘axiomatically’ while the axioms can be selected arbitrarily. And, I have showed that:
    1. With ‘timeless axiom (totally without any empirical base)’, it will produce a nature constant regardless of whether we know anything about the Alpha (fine structure constant) or not. This ‘derived’ number has nothing to do with the fact that the Alpha is an empirical data.
    2. With ‘immutable axiom (again totally without any empirical base)’, it will produce an unchanging structure. And, this ‘produced’ structure has nothing to do with the empirical Standard Model ‘data’ of the ‘48’ matter particles, although this produced structure totally encompasses that SM data.

    The two examples above are not philosophical ‘thinking’ about the nature but are the solid physics-system which describes (derives) the solid physics-facts. One example is good enough as the ‘existential introduction’. Two examples are good enough as the ‘existential generalization’. Of course, there are many more such works which derives the known and unknown physics-laws, and those works have nothing to do with any observations and measurements. If there are no ‘known’ physics-laws (mainly discovered by observations and measurements), the above said ‘axiom-physics’ will still produce those laws although without anything to ‘compare’ with. No, the human ‘endeavor’ for knowing the nature is definitely not restricted in ‘observations and measurements’ only.

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  26. >>A knowledgeable understanding that science is simply a well-honed method of inquiry into, and discovery of, the laws of nature that discourages…

    For the record, much of science isn’t about discovering laws of nature. I’m sure Massimo can attest to this as a biologist.

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  27. Steven Paul,
    I am sympathetic to what you say, especially the history of science. I happen to believe that the teaching of history(of all kinds) is especially important. History communicates the mythic beliefs and attitudes that shape present behaviour. I use the word ‘mythic’ advisedly to mean a broad stream of beliefs, that, while not articulated, fashion our attitudes. They give our life continuity, a feeling of place and an anchor for our behavioural norms.

    So, yes, I think we should certainly teach the history of science (and humanities). It is just that I don’t think it is a substitute for the doing of science. My attitudes were strongly shaped by my experiences in an old fashioned ‘wet’ analytical lab. Confronted with a substance of unknown composition, the challenge was to determine its composition. That introduced the idea of the unknown and the desire to to elucidate the unknown. This was followed by a careful procedure that required precision and exact measurement. This becomes a model for how one can live life. Then there were the calculations that revealed the unknown. Here one discovered the importance of mathematics in understanding the truth. Next came the replication as one tried to eliminate the possibility of mistakes. That introduced one to the important idea that truth must be confirmed. Finally, one discovered through hard experience, that one makes mistakes, that one must always be on the lookout for mistakes of practice, procedure or bias. One learned that perfect accuracy was not attainable but that precision was a worthwhile goal. There was that final ‘aha’ moment as your curiosity was rewarded and confirmed by replication. Curiosity is its own reward.

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  28. Coel,
    Thus you are erring — making an overly broad interpretation of science

    Are you not aware of the irony of your claims. After all it was you that said:

    in all subject areas“, “there are no ‘other ways of knowing’“, “mathematics is a part of science“, science can answer moral questions!

    You make breathtakingly broad claims that science encompasses everything and complain about my much narrower interpretation!

    Then you claim science is not normative(I wholeheartedly agree) and in the same breath claim that science can answer moral questions. Are you not aware of your contradictions? I take it you are an admirer of Walt Whitman:

    Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes

    Let me restate my position in more detail, for clarity:
    1) science makes large and important contributions to society(it is a good thing);
    2) some, relatively backward(in technological terms) countries show evidence of being happier than the advanced countries;
    3) therefore there are other important sources of happiness not to be found in science/technology/development, sufficiently strong to compensate for lesser development;
    4) science is not normative but Scientism is normative. That is an important distinction.
    5) Scientism is a belief system that uses science as its justification;
    6) the values of the belief system called Scientism are harmful.

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  29. I’m probably an outlier in this discussion, but I don’t see it as a problem that science education puts some students in a cold sweat. Specialists like Dirk Van Damme at the OECD think that education should be (to a certain extent) confrontational, and I agree with him.

    Also, why a course on Science Appreciation? People should know that for knowlegde about objective reality science is the way to go, and that’s about it. Anyhow, it’s quite unclear to me what this science is that everybody should learn to appreciate. Science as a sociological phenomenon? Science seen from the point of view of a philosopher? Science as one of the driving forces behind technology? Science as being incapable of answering ethical questions? Science as the handmaiden of the military-industrial complex? Or science as that idealised process that we all like to ponder?

    And a course on the history of science? I’m not against it, but what if somebody starts to demand a history of literature for students who don’t like to read, a history of music if they don’t like classical music etc.?

    For me the biggest problem is not demotivation of students, but demotivation of teachers. Get in better teachers and the rest will follow. All the really good teachers I had were tough, demanding and made my cold sweat break out with regularity. We complained about our teacher of maths if there were no cold sweats. The guy was going soft on us. He didn’t appreciate us. He didn’t challenge us, as if he had given up. A day without a cold sweat was a day lost.

    My partners teaches mathematics to 16-18 yr. olds and she tells me it’s incredibly difficult to find good teachers of science and mathematics. Part of the reason are the educational standards set by our government. I wouldn’t be surprised if the same were true in the US. These standards stiffle creativity, demotivate good students to go into teaching and hang like al wet, cold towel in the neck of teachers.

    If there’s a lack of appreciation for science in the US, then that’s a problem of society in general. Stop tinkering with schools and education to solve problems like that.

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  30. Hi labnut,

    Are you not aware of the irony of your claims.

    Why sure! Indeed, my phrasing was chosen especially for you!

    You make breathtakingly broad claims that science encompasses everything and complain about my much narrower interpretation!

    No, not “encompasses everything”, encompasses all best-attempts to gain knowledge. There are vast swathes of human activity that are not about that. Whereas, your interpretations of science are too broad, seeing something normative in it (or suggesting that others see something normative in it).

    Then you claim science is not normative(I wholeheartedly agree) and in the same breath claim that science can answer moral questions. Are you not aware of your contradictions?

    I’m not contradicting myself at all. Moral realism is a delusion. There is no normativity in morals beyond human feelings and opinion. Describing humans and their feelings is within the domain of science. What is contradictory about that?

    science is not normative but Scientism is normative. That is an important distinction. Scientism is a belief system that uses science as its justification; …

    Sorry, I do not agree with your characterisation of scientism. Scientism is simply a stance about epistemology, the idea that the realm of knowledge is a seamless unity, rather than compartmentalised into independent and epistemologically distinct domains. There is nothing normative about that.

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  31. Hi Mark,

    It seems to me that you, like labnut, are seeing science as too broad, as something normative, or at least attributing that view to others. Science is simply a tool, and yes we should be aware of its limitations, but lifestyle and political choices are not made “by science”, they are made by humans, very few of whom are scientists. Why should “science” get the blame for democratic choices made by humans who are 95% non-scientists?

    … the subservience of science to the domination of greed and finance, …

    Exactly, it is the political choices made by humans, few of whom are scientists, which determine political and economic systems. If Western voters opt for material goods and economic growth, that is their choice, not something dictated “by science”.

    … the eradication of individuality by science, …

    Eh? What is that referring to?

    … the role of science in the development of weapons of mass destruction, …

    Sure, science is a powerful tool for whatever you use it for, but the development of weapons is controlled by politicans.

    … the scientific recklessness that precipitated possibly irreversible climate change, etc.

    Why “scientific” recklessness? Climate change is caused mostly by digging coal or pumping oil out of the ground and burning it. That, again, is technology under the control of people and politicans, serving the ends of people and politicians. Why does “science” get the blame for their choices?

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  32. The challenge, which philos avoid by name calling “science” – is that there appears to be little uniform, patterned behaviors that can be generalized as science. Believe this has been studied.

    All we really have is a series of individual studies that journalists, mainly, but also now philso and anti-science folks of all stripes falsely group under the term “scientific method.” Of course, you have the pop theories of Popper and Kuhn, but those are really archaic now.

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  33. Hi Coel,
    You’re right that I may have an overly broad definition of science, certainly I’m uncomfortable with many currently on offer. Massimo recently admitted to taking the existence of ‘ a thing called “science” ‘ for granted for the sake of discussion at least, but recognized that this is not an uncontroversial position. I myself cannot find the line dividing technology from science, unless one is referring to a ‘pure science’ which is defined essentially to exclude technology. If there is such, perhaps it’s mathematics, and the only thing that makes a human activity scientific is the incorporation of a dose of maths. (Does then business become a science (I think so) certainly there is much accountancy in science.) Massimo thinks there is a thing called science that is a distinct from other things as are plumbing and literary criticism and mathematics. Well, as I said, I don’t think science can ever be distinct from mathematics, so there’s a problem already. It’s easily arguable that there is science in plumbing (hydraulics, empiricism) and as for literary criticism there is a strong movement now to make it more scientific, so there is some definition of science going about which is not distinct from literary criticism. The word science itself and its parasite ‘scientific’ have multiple meanings and uses. And when trying to separate science from technology — let’s not forget how essential technology is to the advancement of science. That’s a vicious circle. You can’t hide under cover of ‘good science, bad technology’. You evade my analogy with gun control opponents. I insist that science is a two-edged sword, science is dangerous, it is given too free a hand, it employs armies of technological labrats and numbers-crunchers to blindly dominate nature and other subalterns at the behest of capital. Science is hubristic.

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  34. Science can never be distinct from math? And yes there is quite a bit of science that takes little or no math on board (esp. natural history, or is that not-science?), and – as I have argued ad nauseam – huge swaths of math that have nothing whatsoever to do with empirical observations or experiments. But I repeat myself…

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  35. Natural history counts, measures, analyzes statistically, employs topology and morphological maths. Increasingly moves away from its origin in descriptive observation. And in that early stage it had as much to do with literature as science (as in Gilbert White or Izaak Walton or Thoreau). I acknowledge that much (most?) of mathematics has nothing to do with science — only suggested that if there is a ‘pure’ science it might be called mathematics. Other non-mathematical sciences would be?

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  36. Hi Mark

    I insist that science is a two-edged sword, science is dangerous, it is given too free a hand, it employs armies of technological labrats and numbers-crunchers to blindly dominate nature and other subalterns at the behest of capital.

    You are right that one can argue about the definition and nature of science, but one thing it is not is normative. It is not a system prescribing what choices people should make, it is simply a tool. You can rightly suggest that it is a very powerful tool, and for that reason a dangerous tool, but it is not a motivating agent. Thus science does not “employ armies” to “dominate nature”; people do that, and they might use the tool of science to do it, but it is still the people making choices, very few of whom are scientists. When anything is done “at the behest of capital”, again it is the people controlling the capital who are responsible.

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  37. Mark, done any natural history lately? Your description doesn’t fit with my experience of it. Lots of biology is barely mathematical, and paleontology.

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  38. SciSal,
    But I repeat myself…

    Please carry on. Each of us have a narrow view formed by our own experiences. Your inputs are a strong corrective that broaden our appreciation of science. That is one of the reasons that philosophy of science is important.

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  39. I have found that often in discussions such as has been started here, that the original question gets lost and the discussion becomes one of semantics. We all seem to have a definition of science that suits ourselves, but may not be the same definition as other hold. And these definitions — mine included — all have anywhere from a bit to a lot of subjectivity about them. Nevertheless, this has been an interesting discussion, and I’m glad to have kicked it off.

    Mark, you said: “I would say that any further gestures towards teaching science to the young which does not underline the dangers of science, science as two-edged sword, science as a tool available to power, is irresponsible and naive.” Sure, this should certainly be covered in any course on the history and appreciation of science. But I agree with Coel that science is just an organized method of discovery. What people in power, either commercial or political, do with what is discovered is another matter not to be taken lightly. But it is separate from science itself.

    Mark, you also said: “Apparently it disturbs you to be taken for a cheerleader for science, but your list of admirable science popularizers end with “of course, Richard Dawkins.”, which speaks for itself.” This only has meaning if I would accept you’re definition of and/or attitude toward science, which I don’t. I am happy to be a cheerleader for science as I define and understand it.

    As to the Dawkins comment, it most certainly does not speak for itself in any objective manner — it only speaks for your own, personal view of the man.

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