What do the public need to know about science?Posted: March 26, 2016
In my last post, I shot a few weary arrows towards adherents of the fashion for describing school subjects as ‘literacies’. My objection is that this takes a productive word and renders it vague. My suspicion is that people tend to do this in order to lend substance to the nebulous, significance to the trivial and prestige to a set of skills that they’ve just made-up.
There were quite a few comments on the blog itself and on Twitter and an issue arose that I would like to address in more depth. The issue is that of supposed ‘scientific literacy’.
One of my most vivid recollections of training to be a teacher was reading a piece by Robin Millar; “Towards a Science Curriculum for Public Understanding.” It was a dispiriting paper about which I was required to write my own response, now lost to a nondescript landfill somewhere in West London. I can no longer access Millar’s text, even as a PhD student. It seems that my university does not have electronic copies of the School Science Review. However, Millar has made similar arguments elsewhere and is by no means alone in making them. Indeed, Alex Weatherall pointed me towards a GCSE course that aims to teach scientific literacy.
The basic idea sets up a false choice between the kind of science that students need to learn in order to prepare them for further scientific study and the science that ordinary members of the public need to know. The contention is that much of school science is about arcane, technical facts and that many students see these as pointless and irrelevant, switching them off science entirely. Therefore, they miss out on learning about the processes of science, something that would serve them well as citizens and consumers.
It is a superficially appealing idea. It’s a classic educational shortcut of the kind often dreamt of by educationalists. ‘What if we could deliver the benefits of a scientific education without all the dreary bits?’ sits up there with ‘What if we could teach reading by just exposing kids to books?’ and ‘What if we could just get children thinking like historians without having to learn all that damnable history?’
Once you expose the hairy backside of this idea it seems less appealing. Advocates will talk of teaching a few ‘big ideas’ such as evolution and climate change alongside a whole lot of process; the scientific method, peer review, correlation versus causation. This fuses seamlessly with the vogue for ‘inquiry’. Soon we will have students who can parrot a formula for constructing a hypothesis, yet who don’t know the difference between a series and a parallel circuit.
And, of course, it doesn’t work. It is an attempt to teach critical thinking skills directly without teaching the content that students need to think critically about. One of the most ridiculous pieces of pseudoscience that our students are likely to meet in their adult lives is homeopathy. It is obviously nonsense. I know this because I know the science. I know what water is made of. I know about molecules. I understand what repeated dilution will do. I understand this because of my content knowledge.
How would knowledge of the scientific method help me evaluate homeopathy? Perhaps I could run my own trial or ask homeopaths about their evidence? What about looking for peer-reviewed sources? Well, they exist.
As ever, there are no shortcuts in education. Well-educated adults still need to know quite a lot of basic science. Scientific ‘literacy’ is not required.