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:

[Read more…]

coming from a space lab near you

Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy had a Tricorder device that was able to diagnose almost any physical condition. It may not yet appear in your doctor’s office, but NASA is working on a device that may be able to discern what’s bugging you:

“Ultimately we want to provide cartridges for all kinds of micro-organisms and chemical compounds,” says Morris. “We’d even like to be able to use our system to figure out what ‘bug’ an astronaut has if he or she becomes ill.”

Lisa Monaco, LOCAD project scientist, adds her vision of the future: “What we are developing at MSFC has use not only on the ISS, but also on lunar missions, long duration stays on other planets, and most certainly here on Earth.”

In the years ahead, as space voyages become longer and longer, it will be even more imperative to have ways of checking astronauts’ health and monitoring electronics. For the record, no astronaut has ever become seriously ill on any space mission. However, the scientists point out that if an astronaut did ever get sick, it would take too much time to send a sample back to Earth, have it tested, and receive a long-distance answer. With next-generation LOCAD technologies, detection and diagnosis would be quick, easy, and on the spot.

Dr. McCoy, here we come.

Emphasis mine.

Just one of those cool things going on at NASA.

Read the whole article for the current state of the project.


what big teeth you have

A couple of fellows from our local area found this monster from the deep blue sea washing itself up on the beach.


It’s a Pacific longnose lancetfish, usually inhabiting a depth of 1.8 km, one of God’s wonderful creations.

Read the whole story here.

Just thought that was kind of cool…


I know it’s true, I saw it on TV

A science script consultant tells all in “My life as an advisor to  TV and film“…

In general, I’ve found that producers of comedy have less interest in adhering to the facts than those involved in dramas.


Even on the dramas, however, a cherished scientific truth will sometimes have to be discarded in order to enable an essential story development, such as a normally three-week-long forensic DNA analysis that’s fictionally done in one hour for the sake of plot pacing. In truth, few will ever notice these gaffs. As one TV producer told me, the number of Ph.D. scientists watching his show accounts for no more than 0.00001% of the Nielsen rating audience.