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History and Philosophy of Science

In this section of the site we will bring together a variety of topics in the history and philosophy of science, opening up the subject in order to show its significance and interest. We start with an insight of something that goes to the very heart of science. 

Questioning everything 

Modern science was formed during the Thirty Years’ War and its aftermath. At a time when Europe was racked with religious and political conflict on matters of faith and belief, Descartes said that knowledge started with doubt – and by doubting everything. 

The word ‘Doubt!’ remarks Leonard Shlain, was ‘the gauntlet thrown down by the Scientific Age.’ 

With the works of Aristotle and the Greeks given the same authority as scripture, and questions of physical phenomena being decided by appeal to the texts of the masters, Galileo said that the only way to get a factual answer was actually to go out and test it for yourself. 

This, he said, was in contrast to people who believed ‘that philosophy is and can be nothing other than continuous study of such texts of Aristotle as can be immediately collected in great numbers from different sources and stuck together to resolve whatever problem is posed.’ 

So science developed as a process – rather than the exegesis of a body of dogma sanctified by authority. 

We should note at the same time that although the medieval church was on the side of authority and dogma, the religious scholars were not all in the same camp. It has been argued by Steven Gaukroger that the scholarly probing into the scriptures that was triggered by the Renaissance was the start of a process of systematic inquiry which later spread out from the book of scripture to the book of the world. 

But the important thing is, that science is a process. And the remarkable success of science over the three and a half centuries since Descartes and Galileo and Kepler and Newton is the result of continually challenging the known in order to get closer to the truth – and continually probing the unknown with a spirit of open-minded questioning. 

When we have to teach science, its process-nature presents problems. When the time comes to develop a system of assessment, it is much easier to ask factual questions – and much easier to assess the answers. The whole educational system has developed in this way. We speak today of ‘the knowledge base’, visualising knowledge as a kind of vast bank of data and skills which are somehow transferred from the vaults of the bank to the mind of the student. 

So science teaching has of necessity to become – a body of dogma, supported by authority. And not surprising, many pupils detest it. 

‘I don’t really care how you work out how fast a ball falls if it weighs 10 kg and is falling 4 metres,’ declared on student in a survey. ‘It’s not stimulating and I’m never going to use that information again.’ 

And the same survey asked: What do you think about the number of facts you have to learn in Science?’ The replies included: 

  • Too many facts have to be learnt without a full explanation of them
  • There are more facts than theory, it would be more interesting to understand why than how.
  • Far too many irrelevant facts that I have now forgotten, in fact I forgot them about a week later, need to focus more on applying facts to situations so that they will be useful in real life and for the coming years.
  • There are too many. To get a good grade you do not have to be a good scientist – just have a good memory. 

The point was emphasised by Dr Craig Venter in a Richard Dimbleby Lecture. 

‘As a young student I was very turned off by the forced memorisation of seemingly trivial facts which were, I felt, at the expense of true understanding. Instead I was much more interested in discovering and living in my world – I caught frogs and snakes, built boats and explored my surroundings.’ 

And he points out, the exploration of the fascinating features of the world around us have been for generations the stimulus for so much science. For Darwin the stimulus was the richly diverse wildlife of the Galapagos, for Galileo the glittering wonders of the night sky. 

Caught in the straitjacket of the examination system and the curriculum, the difficulties faced by science teachers are immense, and what stands out from the school science system is the extent of the successes that they achieve with so much stacked against them. 

But how can we relieve the pressure? Somehow, says Craig Venter, ‘we need to start with our children by teaching them in place of memorisation, to explore, challenge, and problem solve in an attempt to understand the world around them, and most especially the world they cannot “see” or feel directly.’ 

That’s a huge challenge for the people who shape the curriculum – ultimately the government of the country; which is a democracy means us.

Howie Firth

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