Writedit has been a bit preoccupied lately but was stunned by an editorial by Richard Gallagher in The Scientist entitled Why the Philosophy of Science Matters. He starts off:
You might expect that newly minted science graduatesﾠ-ﾠwho presumably think of themselves as scientists, and who I’d thought of as scientistsﾠ-ﾠwould have a well-developed sense of what science is. So it’s pretty shocking to discover that a large proportion of them don’t have a clue.
Summarizing James Williams’ commentary on What Makes Science ‘Science’?, Gallagher notes that “a sizeable proportion of science graduates entering teacher training couldn’t define what is a scientific fact, law or hypothesis.”
What? They think they don’t need to worry about these things, that they can buy them in a kit from Fisher?
Williams’ findings are breathtaking:
Here are some of the data from the 74 graduates that I’ve surveyed to date:
• 76% equated a fact with ‘truth’ and ‘proven’
• 23% defined a theory as ‘unproven ideas’ with less than half (47%) recognizing a theory as a well evidenced exposition of a natural phenomenon
• 34% defined a law as a rule not to be broken, and 41% defined it as an idea that science fully supports.
• Definitions of ‘hypothesis’ were the most consistent, with 61% recognizing the predictive, testable nature of hypotheses.
The results show a lack of understanding of what scientific theories and laws are. And the nature of a ‘fact’ in science was not commonly understood, with only 11% defining a fact as evidence or data. Here are just a few of their definitions of a scientific theory: “An idea based on a little evidence, not fact”; “an idea about something, not necessarily true”; “unproven ideas.”
Some of the graduates implicitly or explicitly equated theories with hypotheses. For example, one defined a theory as “not necessarily proven correct. A hypothesized statement explaining something.” Another defined a hypothesis as “a theory needing investigation,” another stated that a hypothesis was “a theory based on knowledge” and yet another as a “theory proven by experiment.” Conversely, one graduate defined a theory as “a large hypothesis.” Another definition separated out a theory from experimental science by defining it as “the paperwork behind observations, such as literature that tries to rationalize observations and experiments.”
Oh my. Yes, this is just 74 grad students at the University of Sussex intending to become science teachers, but some of them already had their doctorates, and “the majority had high-quality degrees.” Williams ties these findings back to the need for a bit of teaching in the history and philosophy of science for those entrusted with introducing the next generation to sound science versus that put forth by the whackaloons of the world.
Beyond science teachers, could this omission in the training of modern scientists (Williams describes it as “utilitarian”, though I doubt many would consider themselves as seeking to maximize probable happiness in the tradition of Mills) be the missing piece of the puzzle in teaching responsible conduct of research? Can scientists act responsibly if they don’t know, at heart, what science is, other than a means to an end (e.g., their academic and, increasingly, financial success)?