2 What is science?
In all subjects – and science no less so than others – definitions are problematic. At one level, science is a body of knowledge about the natural world. But this begs the question: what is peculiar about scientific knowledge as opposed to, taking just one example, an explanation of the origin of the Universe rooted in folklore and superstition? Others might argue that the scientific approach is unique – that the processes involved in doing science are distinct. That might encompass thinking logically – though few would argue this is the sole prerogative of the scientist – and planning, performing and interpreting experiments and constructing theories. But theoretical physicists and evolutionary theorists seldom perform experiments – other than perhaps in their minds – but would no doubt be anxious to be thought of as no less scientific in their approach than their laboratory-based colleagues. Indeed the distinct disciplines of science encourage fundamentally different approaches and modes of thought. Even within a seemingly well-defined discipline – take biology for instance – different specialists go about their scientific business in fundamentally different ways, asking very different questions. Think of those who study animal behaviour, or the biochemical mechanisms of disease, or the problems of conserving rare species. Thus defining a specific set of methodologies peculiar to science, of universal relevance, would soon prove a hopeless exercise. As more and more scientific practices were squeezed into the definition to accommodate this rich diversity, criteria would soon become sufficiently generous to allow entry of many other types of knowledge, as practised by historians, geographers and artists alike. Such lines of thought bring us headlong into the vexed issue of defining ‘the nature of science’.
Now read the article ‘What is science?’ by Michael Reiss.
Clickto open the article by Michael Reiss
This article raises a number of issues that we'll explore in more detail in the remainder of the course, so it's an ideal preliminary exploration of key areas of concern. Take special note of the implications of Reiss' argument for science education. For example, does the formal teaching of science usually imply that the subject is ‘single, universal, acultural’, as Reiss claims? The following notes 1–9 highlight some important points from the article; each statement includes one or more questions to ponder.
Scientists (and their achievements) are more varied and cosmopolitan than most popular images imply. Does this match with your own experience?
The notion that science is all-powerful and reveals eternal truths, often from unambiguous experiments, is mistaken. Do you agree with Reiss' argument?
Scientists' choice of what they work at can involve more than scientific criteria alone – wider values and political influences play a part. In your view, does Reiss exaggerate the significance of non-scientific factors?
Objective observation is unrealisable; making sense depends on preconceptions and points-of-view. Do you believe (along with Louis Leakey) that a mind ‘uncluttered and unbiased by theory’ could be an advantage in scientific study?
Do you agree with Donna Haraway's argument that ‘scientific practice is story telling and can reflect social agendas’? Do you think that science is inevitably influenced by social factors?
Science is in reality a collection of ethnosciences, reflecting distinct differences in the way science is understood and practised, both between individuals and cultures. But isn't science universal?
Science has to be reported via language and at one point Riess refers to the ‘language of corruption’. Is ‘corrupting’ the right word? In what sense might the purest of scientific languages – that of mathematics – be said to be corrupting?
The notion of what science is changes over time and is often culturally influenced. Can science curricula reflect such pluralism?
School science is unrepresentative of science as it is practiced. Biology is so distinct a science that it runs against what is commonly regarded as the true science experience at school. Is this indeed the reason that students often find school science unsatisfying?
Reiss' arguments suggest that defining the nature of science is deeply contentious and in doing so moves the debate on ‘what aspects of science should be taught?’ into deep philosophical waters. A critical reader of Reiss' paper commented admiringly on the paper as a whole but claimed that his ‘points are made forcefully with occasional exaggeration to underline a particular viewpoint’. Quite how far you think Riess' arguments are over-stated will reflect your own stance on debates at the core of the course – a stance I hope you'll increasingly refine as you move on.