5 Education for democracy?
We are surrounded by, and interact increasingly with, scientific and technological products – for example, electronic miracles such as DVDs, mobile phones or microwave ovens; what is debatable is the extent to which we need to know anything of their workings to co-exist happily with them (see, for example, Chapman, 1991). Perhaps knowing something about the workings of mobile phones, for example, will help users assess the extent of any health risk they pose. Arguments for disseminating scientific understanding that emphasise the usefulness of science knowledge for coping with everyday life are termed utilitarian arguments, which I'll mention again in the context of the next reading, by Edgar Jenkins.
Of greater importance in the present context are a variety of contentious socio-scientific issues that impact on society – ranging across atmospheric pollution, global warming, intensive forms of agriculture, mad cow disease (BSE), cloning and genetic engineering of plants and animals (see, for example, Thomas, 1997).
Think about the public controversies of the type just listed that have a scientific basis. What effect do you think such episodes are likely to have on the way members of the public perceive science and scientists? Do you think that a basic education in science (via the traditional curricula described) would equip lay members of the public to follow such controversies with ease?
The general view (and one supported by sampling of public opinion) is that such episodes have led to an increased scepticism amongst the public of the authority of science and the impartiality and competence of scientists. There was particular emphasis on the (often contradictory) expert pronouncements directed toward the public, especially those during the BSE crisis about the wisdom of eating beef. Most controversies of this type involve fast-moving and uncertain science, too recent to be part of formal science education. As the previous quote by Robin Millar made clear, real-life controversies of this messy type are a far cry from the world of well-bounded, objective and unproblematic science that dominate the school curriculum. For one thing, thinking about contemporary science involves thinking about social values and about ethical judgements.
The resulting alienation felt by the UK public in such events led to a politically-inspired determination to encourage the participation of the public in discussion, debate and decision-making in science-related issues. If this hope was to be turned into reality it is sensible to argue that participation of this type requires a degree of understanding of science. Arguments of this type comprise the democratic argument for teaching science at school level (see Millar, 2002). The cultural arguments for science learning stem from the belief that science is a (perhaps even the) major achievement of Western culture. Just as school learning aims to lay the foundation for an appreciation of, say, music and literature, the crowning achievements of science need to feature in school curricula.