history and philosophy of science

A pair of interesting articles showed up recently in the Scientist magazine web-site (free registration required). The two articles speak to the need for education in the history and philosophy of science. The arguments presented (and the biases revealed) make for interesting reading.

The first article is What makes science “science”? By James Williams, subtitled ‘Trainee teachers don’t have a clue, and most scientists probably don’t either. That’s bad news.’

The second article is Why the philosophy of science matters By Richard Gallagher, ‘The central tenets of science enhance communication and our influence on society’.

Here are some concerns Williams highlights in his article:

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?

What kind of ignorance is Williams talking about?

The results show a lack of understanding of what scientific theories and laws are. And the nature of a ‘fact’ in science was not commonly understood … Some of the graduates implicitly or explicitly equated theories with hypotheses

Gallagher makes this observation concerning Williams’ findings:

Williams’ findings demand a thorough assessment of what’s being taught to science students. If, as seems likely, university science departments are churning out technically sophisticated but intellectually stunted drones that don’t understand the underpinnings of science, then urgent reforms to the curriculum are required because such people aren’t really scientists at all.

Those students who go on to grad school will presumably be exposed to aspects of the philosophy of science, if only through engaging in research. But this is not so for the group that Williams is working with, trainee teachers.

He goes on to say this:

Williams’ calls for a core course in the history and philosophy of science to be taught to all science undergraduates strikes a chord. I’d add that a further course on the philosophy of biology should be required of students in the life and medical sciences.

And calls scientists to “get back to our guiding philosophy”.

Why are they so concerned? Well consider these lines from each man:


The point is this: you must understand your discipline, know its foundations so you are able to defend it from attack by those who seek to hijack science for their own ends, such as climate change deniers, GM modification scaremongers, or creationists. [emphasis mine]


One young innocent, for instance, defined scientific theory as “an idea about something, not necessarily true.” If that isn’t playing into the hands of creationists, then I don’t know what is! [emphasis mine]

There you have it! The real reason for their concern… if these students aren’t taught the philosophy of science … scratch that … the right philosophy of science, then (Horrors!!) those ignorant creationists might gain some ground!