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Teaching science “is not enough”

Teaching science “is not enough” November 2, 2007

SUNY professor Massimo Pigliucci has written a fascinating essay, published earlier this year in the McGill Journal for Education, on the pressing need for teaching critical thinking, rather than just science facts. He pulls up a number of interesting facts to underline this, including a survey he conducted among honours students at the University of Tennessee, showing the more science students than non-science students believed in the paranormal. The reason? The non-science students were mostly philosophy or psychology majors, and so had actually been taught about critical thinking and the scientific method.

Science students, on the other hand, are typically bombarded with facts with little rationale to explain how they were discovered. Prof Piugliucci writes:

The result is that students are confronted with a bewildering array of complex facts that they cannot link to each other conceptually as they probably have no idea from where this information has come. For example, although every teacher of molecular biology knows what restriction enzymes are (because they are so useful in a variety of recombinant DNA techniques), I doubt that most of them realize how they were discovered or what their natural function actually is.

This, he feels, probably explains a curious phenomenon: school dropouts have only a marginally lower level of belief in the paranormal than more educated people. And some 73% of college graduates believe in the existence of a physical Heaven!

Prof Pigliucci makes a number of other fascinating observations in his essay – if you are at all interested in science education, you should read it – including this clarion call:

Scientists must come down from the ivory tower! It is high time for scientists to take seriously their role in their communities and give more back to them. This is not only for practical reasons (like the constant and very real threat to funding of certain areas of scientific research), but simply because it is the decent thing to do. Scientists who do not give back to the community in some tangible way should start thinking of themselves as social parasites – perhaps not of the worst sort, but parasites nonetheless.

Letters from Vrai has some good commentary on this essay, rebutting an attack from those purveyors of pseudoscience, the Discovery Institute.

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