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
"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!
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.