Science and Knowledge
Welcome to the on-line forum for exploring the meaning of science and knowledge. It was authored by Wilfred Franklin of Bryn Mawr College Biology Department in consultation with Dr. Paul Grobstein also in the Biology Department. It is a place to put thoughts-in-progress that might be useful to other people, and to find thoughts-in-progress of others that might be useful to you.
It is intended as no more than a take-off point for conversation here, a conversation in which multiple perspectives on science are allowed to rub against one another, each altering and being altered by the others in the process.
Looking forward to seeing what new understandings and stories we generate together. Please read the following introduction and then post your thoughts below.
A starting point
Science is a way of making sense of the world and the place of humans in it by making observations, generating candidate explanations of those observations, testing the explanations by further observations, and repeating over and over again. In this sense, it is firmly anchored in an unending empirical process that loops repeatedly between observations and interpretations. The loop itself in turn cycles between inductive and deductive steps (see Karl Popper's hypotheticol-deductive Method). Regularities in patterns of observations suggest possible general principles (the inductive step) which in turn are used to generate predictions about observations as yet unmade (the deductive step). The process of generating and testing predictions yields both new ways of making sense of the world and one's place in it and new questions about both. In this important sense, science is not about finding "truth" but instead is a process of continuing inquiry driven equally by curiosity, skepticism, and imagination. (see science as story telling by Grostein).
Optical illusions raise the serious question of how a perceiver "knows" the difference between what is "real" and what is "illusory"? When the process of science is elevated above discovering "truth", skepticism replaces "facts" and evaluating the significance of evidence becomes the critical skill to gain.
Implications for eduation in general
The underpinnings of science as a way of making sense of the the world have implications not only for science education but for learning in general. They suggest that what is of primary importance is to encourage and help students to develop their skills and sophistication in inquiry as a ongoing process, rather than primarily to teach them either particular content or particular skills. This is particularly true in an age when content is widely accessible and particular skills quickly go out of date. The need is not to implant particular material or perspectives in students but rather to help them develop the capacities to evaluate information and to construct for themselves meaningful ways of organizing information.
This is not at all to say that content is irrelevant to the educational process. Content is the fuel for the engine of inquiry, and cannot therefore be ignored. But conveying content is not the primary point of the educational process and so content should be chosen to facilitate the development of inquiry skills rather than starting with content and then trying to present it in a way that also develops inquiry skills.
As for students organizing information in a "meaningful way" to themselves, the process is not solely a function of individual inclination but involves an essential social dimension as well. Interactions with others are important contributors both to creating and to evaluating ways of organizing information. What is being challenged here is not the value of shared knowledge and ways of making sense of information but rather the notion that one should start with shared knowledge and ways of making sense of information. Instead one should allow these commonalities to emerge and evolve in ways that involve the ongoing development of individual understandings.
A scientific understanding depends fundamentally on a continuing engagement of individuals with a process whose outcome is not fully determined in advance. It is only through such an engagement that students will acquire enhanced abilities to inquire, evaluate, and find ways to make sense of information themselves.