5.2 Scientists as a community of practice
Science has been described as involving observation, description, categorisation, investigation, experimentation and formation of theoretical explanations for naturally occurring phenomena – activities performed by scientists using scientific methods.
Jacob Bronowski (1973) said, ‘That is the essence of science: ask an impertinent question, and you are on the way to a pertinent answer’ – an apt way to put it, as with science, we set off from a starting point of curiosity and incomprehension about some aspect of everyday life, which may involve asking simple (even stupid) questions. Why is the sky blue? Why are tulips red? Why aren't all tulips red? Why does my dog bark but blackbirds sing? These are some of the ‘impertinent’ questions for which science is expected to provide ‘pertinent’ answers.
Activity 17: Science in the media
Popular opinion suggests that everyone knows what science is about. There is plenty of evidence in the media: this or that product has been ‘scientifically developed’, or such and such political strategy is firmly ‘based on the scientific evidence’. But what exactly is science?
Make a short list of the things you have seen, heard or read recently which mention or involve science. Then put a tick against each item on your list if you think that you fully understand the scientific principles on which it is based.
Very likely, your list includes items relating to:
aspects of the natural world, such as climate change or pollution;
everyday concerns, such as food or health care;
the social consequences of medical issues such as euthanasia, cloning and abortion;
technologies, such as cars, petrol and oil usage, or computers.
Whatever your list looked like, we hope you can see that the scientific world is wide-ranging, reaching right into our lives. Science impacts on almost everything we do, every day of our lives. Our very understanding of ourselves, how our bodies work, our place in the environment depends on scientific explanations: ‘Science is valuable because it meshes with all our lives’ (Professor Susan Greenfield, in DfEE/QCA, 1999b).
It is crucial, therefore, that as an early years practitioner you understand underlying scientific principles, that you are scientifically literate and can make informed scientific judgements.
Because science is such an essential part of daily life, it seems obvious that we need to understand what it is all about. Each day we are called upon to make scientifically based decisions: what to eat, what technologies to use or discard, what the consequences of our behaviours may be, environmentally or socially; indeed which way to vote on political issues that may have scientific repercussions.
Earlier discussion in this block referred to an identifiable group of people called scientists who seem to speak a distinct form of language called ‘scientific language’. Scientists form a community of practice with its own distinctive style of communication. Our ability to interpret their language is what we refer to when we speak of ‘scientific literacy’. If we understand that language, we can fully participate in scientific debates; if we don't, then we are disenfranchised.
Activity 18: Ozone holes!
You may have read/heard in the media about the increasing number and size of the holes in earth's ozone layers. Briefly (and without reading beyond this paragraph!), write down what you understand to be (a) the causes and (b) the consequences of these holes in the sky.
When you have completed (a) and (b), read through the account below, which is about the effects of CFCs on the atmosphere. What differences do you notice between the language you used and the language of the author of this text?
Over the last two or three decades, human activity has contributed significantly to the amount of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in the atmosphere. When CFCs break down into simpler chemical products, they create a hole in the stratosphere – a phenomenon known as the ‘polar vortex’, because it occurs at the polar regions as a result of an interplay between the breakdown products of CFCs and the weather conditions prevailing at the poles. If the mix is just right, then the holes get bigger (by a process of ‘photo-dissociation’, i.e. they are split by sunlight). There are now holes over both poles, and scientists think that most of the damage is due to human activities contributing large quantities of deleterious chemicals into the atmosphere.
The full implications of these losses for the planet and its ability to support life are still under serious investigation. Holes in the earth's ozone layer are dangerous because they let in a lot more ultraviolet (UV) light, whose rays are harmful to humans. Other plants and animals may be affected – in particular, their genes – and the consequences of these changes are not yet fully understood.
This exercise may have highlighted strengths and gaps in your scientific knowledge. You may not, for example, have understood completely how the holes were formed, even though you may know that it has something to do with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) emanating from refrigerators and aerosols. It may be that you have heard the phrase but never really thought about what it actually means.
Your own account of the problem probably did not include such language as polar vortex and photo-dissociation. You may nonetheless have found it possible to follow the ‘scientific’ account as it gives some degree of explanation for the lay reader. On the other hand, a scientific paper which used similar terms without explanation would be a much more difficult proposition.
It is possible for us to recognise scientists by the code that they speak, which we identify as the language of science. Our ability to interpret this language is governed by our own scientific confidence, based on our knowledge of scientific methods and its paradigms. Science is a socially embedded practice, both because it is developed by the community of scientists, but also because the respect accorded to science is something that arises from wider society, which has traditionally considered scientific knowledge to be factual, real and ‘truthful’.