History and Science Education (Isis Pt. 2) July 23, 2008Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Charles Darwin, David Kaiser, Graeme Gooday, John Lynch, Nick Hopwood, Stephen Brush
Continuing on with the new Isis focus section, let’s start at the beginning, with Graeme Gooday, John Lynch, physicist Kenneth Wilson, and Constance Barsky’s article, “Does Science Education Need the History of Science?” This article is divided into two more-or-less separate points: 1) What role could history of science play amid a science curriculum, and 2) couldn’t we be doing more to debunk popular misconceptions of the history of science, with intelligent design proponents’ arguments as a case-in-point?
The authors start out by addressing the possibility that history of science could actually be seen corruptive because of its relativistic leanings, citing an old Stephen Brush article “Should the History of Science Be Rated X?” A couple of superficial points here: first, the old X rating is now NC-17, so ostensibly college kids are old enough to endure our corrupting forces!; and second, I am amused that I indirectly inherited my History 174 course at Maryland from Brush (AIP postdocs have been teaching it for a while now). Anyway, the authors (and I) assume this is a non-issue these days, so we move on.
More to the point, the article portrays history as a potential force of enculturation while science courses portray a more “static” and stripped-down picture of what science is. We can show how scientific communities work, and how scientific knowledge changes over time, thereby relieving the perplexity caused by the discarding of simplified notions for more advanced treatments offered in more advanced courses. To a degree, I think this is true. One of my science students this spring even mentioned that the course ought to be required of science students (I suspect flattery here). But, other means of enculturation, such as contact with science professors and working in labs, is surely more important and can present a nuanced view a history of science class would likely lack (although maybe sociology of science can find a place here?). If science students get perspective on what it means to be a scientist from our courses, that’s good of course: we do offer a broader picture in scope and in time. But if we are a primary means of enculturation, it tells me that science departments aren’t really doing their jobs.
More interesting, in my view, is the use of specifically designed history of science courses in fulfilling distribution requirements. I’m uncertain of the utility of one-off exposures to other fields, even survey courses, in making someone intellectually well-rounded. However, to take the history of something more directly related to one’s disciplinary pursuits could introduce genuinely new perspectives on material that is traditionally taught in a very different manner. In fact, these courses could be more tightly integrated into science curricula themselves. As I understand it David Kaiser’s “Einstein, Oppenheimer, Feynman” course at MIT (on the history of physics since the 19th century) is moving in this direction and becoming increasingly technical, which I’d guess, counterintuitively, engages the students more in the act of historical argumentation. We’ll have to get Dave on here at some point to comment.
As for historians of science becoming public fact-checkers on issues such as ID; that, too, could have some value, but (anticipating the Wang-Oreskes article) we should be well-aware that public and political discourses obey different rules from the scholarly world. In particular, they see the world in terms of “what side are you on”, and they do not tolerate nuance, which means, if you want to have any effect at all, you have to pick your statements carefully and pithily. The authors (channeling Nick Hopwood) recognize the unlikelihood of changing ideologues’ minds, but counter that we have a “civic duty to help correct historical misinformation in science textbooks. In so doing, we are not suggesting that students should not hear allegations about Haeckel’s fraud–far from it–but that his work should be placed within a properly conceived historical…” *snore* *snrk* *huh?* *whuh?*
If we do want to do this, we’ll have to reconcile ourselves to becoming sloganeers in ways that are sure to be contrary to our instincts. It might be worthwhile, but I’m not sure we’re ready.