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Pyers Simon: Should the scientific philosophy and method be taught in schools?

Pyers Pyers Symon graduated in biochemistry from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth but now works in IT as a Unix systems specialist. He is married with three teenage children.

One of the saddest aspects of the recent debate on over Creationism, is the lack of understanding of the scientific method – and the philosophy behind science.

The classic statement which is made about Evolution is “Oh it’s just a theory like any other.”  But without an understanding that the word theory has a specific meaning in science, and when scientists refer to a theory they don’t mean a guess nor a hunch but, rather, “the current explanatory model that best fits the facts”. 

In addition basic scientific tenets are misunderstood: scientists deal in – to use Jacob Bronowski’s phrase, “Knowledge not Certainty”.  In short, scientists aim to get closer and closer to the truth through knowledge – but they are rarely so egotistical as to claim that they are purveyors of truth.  As Nobel Physicist Professor Richard Feynmann put it, “it’s much more interesting not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.”

And yet none of this is really taught in schools.  A quick trawl through Edexcel’s web site - and I suspect the other examining bodies are similar - indicates that no form of scientific philosophy is taught at GCSE (it is at “A” Level Philosophy) or below.  Most certainly it is not mentioned in the GCSE Science syllabus.

Looking at the Edexcel GCSE in Religious Studies Specification we find these weasel words:

“The scientific cosmology (Big Bang and evolution) and religious attitudes to it.

How science and religion are connected (principles, purposes, methods, belief and experience).  The ways in which some scientists see science as leading to or supporting belief in God.”

Apart from the fact that science has nothing to say about religion – a topic hammered to death elsewhere on ConHome – and so there is no connection nor are there any formal, testable, falsifiable ways in which science leads to God, there is nothing here about the scientific method.

And yet, we live in a scientific, technological age which dominates pretty well everything we do.  It is my contention that an understanding of both the scientific method and the philosophy of science should be made part of the current curriculum.

Whether this should be done in RE or Science I don’t mind – it might be better in RE where the teachers are more used to teaching such ideas (although science teachers might well need to be involved)  – but to ignore the scientific method is to overlook an elemental part of what we need in society to counterbalance the philosophy of irrational belief systems. 

I propose that in addition to the above the following should be taught:

  • What is scientific knowledge? Why is it different to truth?
  • The limits of scientific knowledge
  • The concept that science is falsifiable. Induction in science
  • The specific meaning in science of “hypothesis”, “theory” , “law”

Following this I would hope that a lot of the misunderstandings about science and the scientific method would be cleared up.


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