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Andrew Zimmerman Jones

Teaching Scientific Values

By January 7, 2012

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I've been thinking a lot about scientific values lately, since watching a talk by neurologist Sam Harris, where he is speaking on whether science can say anything about morality. I won't speak to his larger point (other than to direct readers to his book The Moral Landscape), but I will pull this one quote out of his statements (starting around the 19:30 minute mark on the video):

... science has always been in the values business. We simply cannot speak about facts without embracing certain values. It's not that you can't get an "ought" from an "is," you simply can't get an "is" without embracing certain "oughts." Consider the simplest statement of scientific fact. Water is two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. This seems to be as value-free an utterance as human beings ever make. What do we do if someone doubts the truth of this proposition? What if someone comes forward and says, "I'm sorry, but that's not how I choose to think about water"?...

What do we do with that person? All we can do is appeal to scientific values. If a person doesn't share those values the conversation is over. We must appeal to the value of understanding the world. The value of evidence - in this case some hundreds of years of evidence in chemistry. The value of logical consistency? Much of what we believe about the world is predicated on the validity of our beliefs about the structure of water. If someone doesn't value evidence, what evidence are you going to provide that proves someone should value it. If someone doesn't value logic, what logical argument could you invoke to show that they should value logic?

Now, Harris is using these points as part of his overall discussion of morality ... but I want to go another direction with his invocation of the "values" of science. My undergraduate degree includes a minor in philosophy, so in addition to my work in science, I also have familiarity with the philosophy of science. This notion that scientific investigation requires inherent value judgments resonates with that part of my education.

Really, these "values" all represent something which I gather together under the general umbrella of "scientific reasoning" in my article on skills needed to study physics. At the time, however, I didn't make the connection between scientific reasoning and any sort of value system, but the connection is certainly there. As Harris points out, scientific reasoning is at its heart a decision about what sort of things we value.

In other words, as I'll argue, the primary goal of science instruction - especially in the early years - is (or at least should be) to instill these intellectual values into students.

Political Correctness and Scientific Values

Immediately, I can sense some readers balking at the idea that a science teacher should be involved in the teaching of any sort of values, but I say that these values are so crucial to the scientific enterprise, and making students into rationale thinking adults, that they can't be overlooked. The problem with science education is that it's stepped away from teaching scientific thinking (including scientific reasoning and scientific values) in favor of a spattering of facts and procedures.

Part of this reason has been the politically correct need to give all opinions equal weight, even those which are dangerous to scientific teaching.

A few years back I wrote the article "Why Study Physics?" which puts forth my basic argument for why scientific literacy is so important to our society and culture. That article includes the following quote by Richard Feynman, describing what science is:

Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely) , how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments are made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and show.

I then suffered from some bizarre bout of political correctness and said: "The question then becomes (assuming you agree with the merits of the above way of thinking) how this form of scientific thinking can be imparted upon the population."

Looking back on it, though, whether or not anyone "agrees" with the merits of scientific thinking (as described by Feynman) is irrelevant.

First of all, I find it difficult to imagine that anyone would stand up to oppose any of the above thought processes. Even the most anti-scientific person is hardly likely to take to the floor of Congress (where many of these anti-science people seem to gather) and say, "I don't believe that knowing how to handle doubt and uncertainty has any merit." While the anti-science crowd often make their livings from people's inability to distinguish truth from fraud, I'd say that they still see the merit in it, at least in their own lives.

Second, even those who oppose such thinking (probably on a subconscious level) don't have the right to prevent it from being imparted upon the population. If their way of thinking would result in people being unable to distinguish truth from fraud and show, or to be unable to think about things so judgments can be made, then their thought system is just plain inadequate to the task of dealing with the world.

Why Creation Science is Dangerous

At the beginning of 2012, Indiana's State Senate (my home state) introduced Senate Bill 89, which consists of this text:

"the governing body of a school corporation may require the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science, within the school corporation."

I felt strongly enough about this to contact my state senator. (New Hampshire has a more complex bill, which I'm sure I'll get to in another post.) Once I laid out my bona fides - my science, education, and writing background - I got to the meat of my protest:

Science must address the evidence, and by its very nature saying that a natural phenomenon can only be explained by reference to a non-natural phenomenon is anti-scientific. Allowing public schools to teach "creation science" as part of an established science curriculum puts us in danger of having students ill prepared to understand how science really works. The Creation/Evolution debate may be worthy of discussion in a social studies or religion class, perhaps as some sort of elective, but there is nothing scientific about "creation science," and it has regularly been shot down as an attempt to inject religion into science curricula. The current wording seems to allow it to be taught on equal footing with evolution, which would be doing a disservice to the students, parents, and taxpayers in our state, who expect that science classes will actually inform students about science, rather than be used to indoctrinate non-scientific thinking.

To my way of thinking, the invocation of God is not the biggest problem with "creation science." God could exist, after all, despite the general lack of evidence. The problem with it is that running up against a natural mystery and invoking an un-natural explanation is not scientific and has no place in a science classroom.

Teaching this as a valid scientific methodology is equivalent to teaching randomly picking numbers as a valid addition process in math class!

Scientific Values

In other words, creation science fails to mesh with the basic values at the heart of the scientific enterprise.

Especially since becoming a parent, I have firmly come to believe that the task of teaching science is really the task of instilling scientific values, and the earlier the better. Children are inherent question machines, and the way we respond to these questions will teach them how to answer questions throughout the rest of their lives. Responding to questions with honesty and an open sense of inquiry, to see if they can figure out a way to find the answer on their own, either through investigation, experimentation, or research, is probably the best thing you can do for instilling scientific values.

I certainly realize how hard it is (Kids ask so many questions!), but the good thing is that this process tends to be a lot of fun for everyone involved.

What values are necessary for the scientist (or at least the good scientist)? Some are proposed by Harris, and I've added a couple more that I've thought up:

  • Understanding the World/Universe is a Worthy Endeavor
  • Respect for Evidence
  • Principles of Logical Consistency
  • Learn from Others
  • Communicate Results to Others

How's this list look? Can you be a good scientist without any of these? Should some be rephrased? Do you have any suggestions for scientific values that I've missed?

I'll be exploring these values in more details in the coming weeks, and I look forward to advice on how to help flesh out the list and make it useful to teachers of science.


January 7, 2012 at 1:26 pm
(1) Charles Clemmons says:

I think your article has merit in attending to the issue of a lack of ‘critical thinking’ in society today, however, in my opinion, it is remiss in attendance to the one fact that has many adhering to the side of “anti-science”. That being that, albeit, a country founded on the concept and principles of a “God” concept, ‘God’ has been superfluously discarded by uncertain, unscientific reasoning. I am a current college student (late in life at that) and have just recently taken an interest in science, mostly physics, and I cannot express how frustrating it is for many to discount the possibility of creation or divine design by unscientific means! Too me, the two do not need to be separated, yet, there seems to be a wedge between the two (Science and God), that in many ways has contributed to the moral degradation in our society today. I took a biology course last semester and I found it appalling that evolution is promulgated as if it is absolute fact without considering the other half of the equation. Granted it is an obvious fact that evolution is a datum of life, but not in the sense that science purports, as many are now coming forth and declaring that what Darwin observed is adaptation and not “a changing of species” , which despite the popularity of it being publicized, Darwin never claimed or asserted such. In that the question, that none can absolutely answer with scientific certainty; “how did it all get started” still remains a mystery. In such, many draw an unfounded corollary and disseminate it as if it is scientific fact, scientist included, that it all started out of nothing or a “chance” primordial ooze. Yes, I agree, we all need a lesson in critical thinking and if one does that and steps away from political correctness ….God and Science can reunite as they/it should!

January 7, 2012 at 4:14 pm
(2) Ian Liberman says:

Charles scientific values and critical thinking are base on empirical data ,research, testing, analysis, evaluation,falsification,verification and peer review and religion is based on faith which means anecdotal information, no evidence and myth. There is nothing to support Intelligent design and everything to support Evolution. It is illegal to teach intelligent design in Canada and Europe because it is not Science. The anti-science movement has caused a funding crisis and a brain drain to other countries. There will never be a reconciliation and to quote Hawking.”Science will always win out.” I will repeat my other response to Andrew because it has relevance to you posting. “Andrew, I read your article and I enjoyed your application of Sam Harris`concepts to science and education.It was excellent.Scientific values are important to education and society because they embody neutral ,non bias strategies to discover the truth in every aspect of our world and the universe and possible other universes. Having taught science as a teacher in upper elementary grades and junior high , I maintain that respect for evidence is based on teaching students to embrace the scientific method and critical thinking skills as a source of discovering the evidence. This can start in elementary school. Of course the applications of these skills are valuable beyond the classroom and if people were using them on a daily basis there would be no conflict over evolution and intelligent design so we need to send out all students with these skills into the world to take us out these dark ages. Your article is a good starting point about why a scientific education is the first step to a literate society and not just in science, Andrew. It gives us the skills to properly judge everything from the supernatural to homoeopathy.Intellectual relativism (which is really non intellectual) caters to social, political and scientific illiteracy and is dangerous because that leads to Theocracy.”

January 7, 2012 at 9:51 pm
(3) John Slomski says:

The following are not specifically scientific values, but more general rules of thumb to advance one’s intellectual growth:

Seek out the most intelligent, diligent, and rational investigators or thinkers who disagree with you and find out how and why they came to their conclusions. Spend a while living in their world (without your blast walls up) to the extent possible.

Know thyself. In particular, honestly examine your propensities to slam the doors on certain lines of thought. Remember that we are all creatures of psychology as well as reason.

January 7, 2012 at 10:30 pm
(4) Tammy says:

Throughout my life I’ve been a firm believer in science, scientific discovery, and fact over fiction. As a physician, I am increasingly frustrated by what we don’t know about medicine and how weak the “science” is behind a lot of what we “know.” Just the other day I was expressing how difficult it is for me to wrap my brain around biostatistics and epidemiology because there is so much conjecture in them that it makes it difficult for me to believe any medical study I read any more. There is a certain point in science when we delve directly in theory and theory on top of theory and are left with very little solid ground. We get to a point where things “make sense scientifically” but we can’t really prove it yet because we don’t know how. Sometimes we “prove” things only to find out years later we didn’t quite have it right. Just today I was googling one of my instructors in my MPH program and discovered that he is in the middle of a controversy about Kaposi sarcoma. I didn’t know there was a controversy about Kaposi sarcoma. Kaposi sarcoma is caused by HHV8 and is brought out when people are immunocompromised with something like a low CD4 count caused by HIV. But, not everyone with HIV and HHV8 gets Kaposi sarcoma and there is a much stronger association with use of “poppers” made of amyl nitrate. What’s up with that? We’d like to say a virus caused the disease because it is easy. Kill the virus, kill the disease. But what if the virus is in everyone? We probably can’t kill a ubiquitous virus–and how could anyone associate such a ubiquitous virus with a rare disease? Same goes for HPV. Millions of people have HPV, but very few get cancer from it. Why is that? It’s not because we are curing HPV or catching the cancer before it becomes cancer. There is something else going on there. Necessary, but not sufficient causes create great consternation in medicine.

January 7, 2012 at 10:31 pm
(5) Tammy says:

Part 2 of my comments:

So, what does this have to do with God and creation and what we teach our kids? I was never taught creation. I can’t fathom it being taught in school. My freshman biology teacher made it clear that she objected to teaching evolution. I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the multitude of creation stories and I don’t think it is wrong for them to be introduced at some point. But a science class is not the place for them. A generic divinity class might go a long way to making kids more appreciative of other religions. Teach a little of everything and let the kids make up their own minds. You teach scientific method in science class, what the religions believe in divinity class, and see if the kids apply the scientific method to the various texts for themselves. I, personally, am impressed at how close so many creation stories are to each other and how they can be extrapolated to what we believe about the formation of the universe and evolution. Considering the stories predate modern science by many, many moons, I’d say we may be on to something. The way I read Genesis, the universe was created rapidly with a big bang, man evolved from things on the earth. End of story. We all agree (although, creationists would not use the word evolved, they would say created or intelligently designed). Maybe a superior being was involved, maybe not. That’s where the real disagreement is.
So, I think there is some critical thinking to be had by taking some religion classes–but in a public school, I’d think the class would be more of a survey of many different religions and atheism and be unbiased. But, religion shouldn’t be in the science class any more than you’d dissect toads in the religion class.

January 9, 2012 at 10:47 pm
(6) JAMES says:

Scientific values and value judgments should be based on the “Golden Rule”. People should actively use an unemotional, deliberate thought process focused on doing what is best for humanity based on what they know would be best for themselves. Of course, in a world where almost all adult humans remain just as emotionally immature as they were as a child, human relations won’t change for 100’s, if not thousands of years. Just the futility of trying to change anything makes me want to stop writing.

January 13, 2012 at 9:12 am
(7) Agu Charles says:

There would not have a problem between science and religion if both sides had realized that knowledge acquired by the application of the intellect can not be absolute. Knowledge from every aspects of learning will complement each other if we drop conceit and become open in our endeavor. One fact remains clear to both divide, that the absence of prove is not the prove of absence. We should not have problems with the value put forward as consistent scientific values are derived from Superior unalterable natural laws. Having realized that these laws existed before science we should be humble enough to acknowledge that we do not know all.

January 23, 2012 at 10:06 am
(8) W. B. Cheney, III says:

Yes, I would add “Truth” as a scientific value.
An other would be “Honesty.”
Without either, no one’s work would have value.
The current scientific method assumes that a published work is an honest effort to find a reproducable truth.
Slanting the research will always result in invalid, un-reproducable results with the subsuquent loss of reputation.

Except for government funded research, that is. Since the Clinton Adminstration, researchers had better produce the “desired” results or they will never get anymore funding. Thus the whole psuedo science associated with the Global Warming due to Greenhouse gases, the lies about second hand smoke, and other scientific falsehoods.

January 23, 2012 at 1:44 pm
(9) gewisn says:

Andrew, you are absolutely right.
There are values inherent in doing and teaching science, and ignoring those or (worse) hiding them leads to confusion and impasse. Thank you for bringing this to the forefront for discussion. In my public schooling (60′s & 70′s), we got a good science curriculum, but there was No mention of philosophy or comparative religion. Perhaps that has helped cause the misunderstanding by my peers about the difference and the confusion my generation imparted to our kids: since science doesn’t know everything and some scientists disagree, then it is all just guesses and every guess is as good as every other. I wish there was some philosophy taught, beginning as early as possible. Perhaps that way our students would understand that science provides us with an understanding of how the universe works, and that things like religion, spirituality, morality, art, etc. provide us with different kinds of understanding and meaning. They are often related or have overlap, but you cannot learn all about optics by studying floral design and you cannot learn floral design by simply learning about optics. These different aspects of meaning do not need to be in competition and they certainly cannot be substituted successfully. You can’t expect to learn whether asbestos causes mesothelioma from The Bible and you can’t learn whether the Shinto gods are happy with you from The Origin of Species.

Thank you for letting me ramble.

January 23, 2012 at 1:45 pm
(10) gewisn says:

So as to your list of values of science, let me add:

- Understanding the HOW the universe works provides us the chance to make informed decisions, globally and personally.
- Evidence should never be ignored, including its limitations.
- Logic and math are essential tools for science and science cannot be understood or properly utilized without them.
- Learn from Others, but always question, “What more can be known?” “What mistakes might have been made? “What other conclusions are possible?” “What other way can we test that?”
- Communicate Results to Others Honestly and Completely. Science is a social activity and its results are applied to/by people, so deception in any form hurts science and hurts people.
- Understanding the limitations of science and what it can do/predict is as important as understanding the science.

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