7.4.3 Modelling errors
be aware that it is often possible to provide an estimate of error for numerical values derived from the application of theoretical models to a data set.
For me, thinking about the use of models convinces me of some of the benefits of ‘problematising’ science – as we've been doing in the commentary so far. Indeed, my feeling is that using models reflects something more general about how scientific understanding is built up. By this I mean that models simplify reality, apply to a limited set of conditions, draw on limited data and ‘best guess’ assumptions have to be built into the model – and that such approximations to reality become the foundation for predictions that might emerge from the model. More generally, scientific understanding maps onto reality in much the same informative but approximate way. Notions such as ‘proof’ and ‘truth’ take on a different complexion in such a light. But for teacher and student alike, a significant intellectual task faces them – as a balance is struck between conflicting forces. One such domain stresses the provisional nature of scientific understanding – such that simply ‘collecting more data’ may not always answer all the questions, given the assumptions that underpin the process of data collection. Opposed to this is the operational certainty of science – apples do fall from trees to the ground – and the powerful predictive capacity that scientific knowledge so frequently demonstrates. My point is that gaining an understanding of the nature of science that is insightful and yet makes good pragmatic sense is no small intellectual undertaking. And in the context of school science, how worried ought we to feel about the implication of the anonymous aphorism that ‘[such] philosophy is only for the older, prepared mind’.
What is striking from Ryder's analysis is the number and range of the overall requirements – 39 bulleted points in all for the six areas identified, representing a sizeable range of discrete skills. Of particular interest is Ryder's conclusion that the amount of formal scientific knowledge necessary to make better sense of all such circumstance was limited – individuals are able to access information relatively easily, presumably making only limited use of knowledge from school science education.
A good many such ‘ideas-about-science’ go beyond the boundaries of what is conventionally thought of as school science. For example, exploring ‘how knowledge claims in science are developed and justified’ embraces philosophical concerns and in particular, the epistemology of science – in other words, the study of the nature and origin of scientific knowledge and its limits and validity. What is critical here is an understanding of the nature of scientific evidence, the importance of ‘creative conjecture’, the way scientific evidence is formulated and the provisional status of all scientific knowledge. The sociology of science is another important element in making sense of contemporary science. There are interactions within the scientific community – collaboration and competitiveness and the operation of the peer-review system. How scientists frame research questions, seek funding and achieve reward – what could be termed ‘external sociology’ – is also important. Similar logic implies that an awareness of how science is presented in the media is also relevant, especially if the aim is to make better sense of science controversies in the media. Such an ability depends in no small part on factors such as:
how science information is represented in different media (newsprint, TV, the internet);
what criteria prompt journalists to highlight a particular story and neglect others (so-called news values);
journalistic conventions, especially the use of language; and
how different media portray uncertainty and risk, where, for example, the subjective elements of reporting have a greater prominence and reader appeal than objective risk assessment.
This section has built up a list of ‘requirements for literacy’. What are your feelings about these specifications highlighted so far? Do they represent the type of science learning that you would have liked to have experienced?
Personally, I find them attractive and engaging, and they offer a very different experience of science from my own. They also strike me as an ambitious set of requirements – both in type and number!
Indeed, delivering functional scientific literacy represents a formidable pedagogical challenge. Collins’ critical appraisal of Beyond 2000 takes the view that ‘many of the topics that the proposed syllabus proposes to cover are so difficult and subtle that they are hard to teach at undergraduate level’. A lot of consideration has to be given to what is possible at different ages. And the list of required science we've chosen to highlight here reflects only the needs of ‘ideas-about-science’ – how the curriculum might be shaped by the demands of the ‘narrative stories’ referred to earlier is left unresolved. Neither is it possible as yet to define what curriculum needs may derive from addressing the cultural dimensions of science.
And what perception of science as a whole would students have from a curriculum that focused more on problematic, socio-scientific issues? As we discussed in Activity 3 in Section 5, amongst adults, recent controversies seem to have contributed to greater disillusionment with science and scientists (see Thomas, 2000). To what extent would participation of lay adults in public debate and policy-making be supported by a curriculum envisaged in Beyond 2000? Is the process of engagement in public debate a skill that needs to be taught, in order to allow individuals to exercise the democratic competence that they will have struggled so hard to achieve?
What is certain though is that any such new curriculum would require a significant loss of more traditional curriculum content. Millar (2002) identifies a number of traditional topics that don't feature in the essential ‘explanatory stories’ that Beyond 2000 identifies, including the Newtonian model of motion and ‘a lot of detailed chemistry, waves and the understanding of electric circuits’. Perhaps it is the prospect of loss on this scale that accounts for resistance to changes of this type, which forms the focus of our next reading.