St Therese and the Nature of Science

Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:40 pm

This little teaching story formed part of my PhD dissertation, about 8 years ago. I was recycling it as part of a book chapter I’m writing in a book on ‘Autobiography as Method’ and thought it’d be fun to share it here too.

Therese1 looks from Carolyn to me, and back again. Most of the other students in the room have missed the inconsistency – frankly, most of them stopped listening ten minutes ago. But Therese is bright, and even though she considers science “a waste of time”, she’s almost always listening and thinking, even when I think she’s just adding another layer of intricate doodling to the inside of her folder.

“That’s not what Mr Geelan says science is about”, she murmurs, without bothering to raise her hand. Carolyn – the class teacher – has just come out with the statement that “science is true facts about the world”, and Therese remembers that a few weeks ago, in one of my fairly frequent digressions into the nature of science, I claimed that science is a way of understanding the world that doesn’t necessarily yield truth.

Now Carolyn’s looking at me too, and I try to explain again what I understand the nature of science to be. My perspective owes something to Paul Feyerabend’s ‘anything goes’ approach, something to postmodernism and constructivism and something to the sociology of science. It’s eclectic and rather complex, and I’m trying to describe it as clearly and simply as I can, without using any of those terms.

But even as I’m explaining, I’m thinking “Do the students really need this? Is it appropriate for their age and stage of development to try to grapple with epistemological and ontological questions that I came to much later? Or would it be more comfortable and productive for them to believe in the sacredness of scientific knowledge for a little longer?” I can’t decide what is most appropriate, and the situation has arisen in the classroom right now, so I try to make the best of it.

“Well, I think about it this way,” I begin.
How do I do this without openly disagreeing with Carolyn?
“Science is a word that’s used to talk about two things, and they’re both important. Science is a body of knowledge – ideas and theories. These are really ways that people have found to think about what they see in the world. But science is also an activity – it’s something people do, as well as something they know. In our school science lessons, we try to introduce you to some of those scientific ways of thinking about the world, and we also try to let you do what scientists do – explore the world in thoughtful, careful ways.”

“I don’t want you to think that science is just about memorising a heap of facts – that, number one, isn’t very useful, and number two, doesn’t make you a scientist, or even scientifically literate. Science is about learning a special set of ways of working and thinking. They’re related to ways we work and think in other learning areas, but also a bit different. For example, in English, we look at a novel or a poem or a story and try to understand what it’s about, and how it makes us feel.”

Carolyn breaks in, “But in English there’s really no one right answer, where in science there is…isn’t there?” I don’t want to deal with that right now, so I turn from the class to her and say “I’m getting to that, but I want to do this a particular way”, then continue.

“What Ms Young was talking about was the first of those two things about science – scientific knowledge…”

I continue with my explanation, in a lecturing mode that’s unusual for me, and I’m very aware that, fascinating and important as this stuff is to me, and although I think I’m explaining it pretty clearly, most of the students’ eyes have glazed over. Some are staring out the window at the gentle grey drizzle, one or two have their heads down on their desks, and Tony is flicking bent staples at Jules when neither teacher is looking. I’ve been seeing the staples appear, but I want to try to catch Tony in the act – perhaps then the inevitable visit from his mother will be at least marginally less unpleasant. Unless I have some pretty direct evidence, it’ll just be “You’re picking on him” again. I’m not, but Carolyn is, and that makes my position morally difficult when I’m talking to Tony’s Mum.

Carolyn says, “So, you’re saying scientific facts aren’t really true?” While I’m trying to get my thoughts together, Therese blessedly breaks in. “No, Ms Young, it’s more like they’re true at one place and time, but not always. They’re sort of like fashion…” Carolyn completely ignores her and keeps looking toward me, and I try to explain the ideas Therese has just put together so cogently. I also try to acknowledge Therese and her contribution, by alluding back to them in my comments, and earn a grudging smile before she drops her head forward and hides behind her long dark fringe – a frequent refuge.

Carolyn says, “Oh, OK, I think I understand”, but her expression makes it clear that she doesn’t, and doesn’t really believe me anyway. Therese has a better understanding of this stuff than Carolyn ever will – but she still thinks science is a waste of time.

1. All the names used, except mine, are pseudonyms to protect the innocent (and the guilty).

4 responses to “St Therese and the Nature of Science”

  1. Sirdar Inc. says:

    I can see your point of view on science. There are some facts that are true in the way we view certain things but there are so-called facts that have been disproven. Another scientific verbage I have an issue with is the word theory. If it is theory then it is not fact…however over time theories become fact. Good thing the theory that the world is flat was disproven!!

  2. Bravus says:

    Theory’s a tricky one, because it’s used quite differently in science to the way it’s used in everyday language. If we say ‘I have this theory…’ in conversation, it usually means it’s a rank guess. A scientific theory is something that is, at least, able to be tested. In most cases it is connected with whole other bodies of scientific knowledge, and in most cases it has already met, and survived, a number of rigorous tests.

    I wouldn’t actually say theories become fact: they become theories that are well supported by lots of evidence. Facts are smaller pieces of information that somehow fit within theories. I think you’ve used ‘fact’ to mean much the same as ‘true’, and in that case a theory like the universal theory of gravitation could be considered factual. (Except that, under some conditions, Einstein’s theory of General Relativity does a better job…)

    Most perspectives on the philosophy of science that are fairly recent have shyed away from saying that scientific theories are true in some absolute sense: the most they’ll say is that the theories work, so far. In keeping with that, they’ll never say a theory is *proved*, just that it’s well supported by lots of evidence, but they will say that it’s *disproved* if there’s evidence that contradicts it.

    Anyway, here endeth the lesson. 😉

  3. Bravus says:

    …and those stickers that were recently placed in the Biology textbooks in Georgia – “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. The material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.” – was basically an attempt to play on confusion between the everyday and scientific definitions of ‘theory’.

    In fact, if it wasn’t limited to the specific case of evolution, I’d be very happy for that disclaimer to be in all science textbooks: what’s not to like about an open mind, careful study and critical consideration?

  4. TwizeeK says:

    Fundamentalism and Fascism.

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