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History and Science Education (Isis Pt. 2) July 23, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
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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.

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Comments»

1. Science Blogs » Blog Archive » Importance of History of Science (for scientists and others) - August 4, 2008

[…] Will Thomas, who is a historian of science, writes among else: 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. […]

2. John Lynch - August 4, 2008

Hi Will. Thanks for commenting on the paper, I have been hoping that others would. You say:

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.

I’m not sure I understand your point here. How does historically contextualizing claims turn us into sloganeers?

3. Stranger Fruit - August 4, 2008

Blogging and history of science…

Ben Cohen over at The World’s Fair has gotten me thinking about something: is there really a readership for blog posts about the history of science [HoS]? My own experience is that there may not be such a readership, or……

4. Will Thomas - August 4, 2008

John, thanks for your comment. Actually, I don’t see contextualization as leading to sloganeering. On the contrary, I see the two options as being fairly exclusive of each other. The ID/evolution debate contains many erroneous scientific and historical claims. We certainly can correct and contextualize these claims, but my point with the “*snore* *snrk*” and all that is to question whether contextualization is likely to matter to an audience for whom moral high-ground is more important than intellectual nuance.

In this instance, I don’t mean to be derogatory when talking about sloganeering. While we should debunk historically false claims, I’m not sure it would convince anyone to abandon the general ID argument. On the other hand, offering some historical event or quote that allows persuadable people to not feel like they are committing heresy by denying ID a place in the science classroom, might be a better means of intervening.

Arguing by means of pithy decontextualized example is contrary to our training, but in my experience, public discourse seems to deal more in giving people comfort in taking a certain position than in offering rigorously defendable interpretations of history.

5. Will Thomas - August 4, 2008

Oh, I see the original point of confusion. When I say, “if we want to do this”, I don’t mean contextualize, I mean “if we want to inject ourselves into the ID debate” we might have to become sloganeers rather than contextualizers, and that will chafe. Sorry, vague syntax.

6. John Lynch - August 4, 2008

Will,

Thanks for the clarification! Certainly, attempting to correct the misuse of history is a somewhat Sisyphean task but the masochist in me thinks it is necessary.

It might be fun to get some people together over a beer at HSS to chat about this. Ben (Cohen) will be there as will I.

7. Will Thomas - August 4, 2008

I ought to be there, too, and Michael Robinson already suggested this a while ago, so I think that’s a go. Also, it looks like the focus section has gotten some good commentary from a lot of blogging quarters, so well done on getting the ball rolling! I ought to do a round-up post on this in the next couple of days…. but for now, time to shut down the computer!

8. John Lynch - August 5, 2008

Will,

Excellent. Let’s touch base closer to the meeting and see if we can arrange a sit-down about history of science blogging and suchlike.


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