Friday, January 20, 2006

Back in December, I went to a symposium on chemical education. Many topics were discussed, from the broad overview of chemistry education and its objectives(why, what) to the specifics(how, where, when).

One thing that struck me was how the lecturers seem so concerned(or eager) to push chemistry and general science education, when my own experience tells me there's no real compelling reason to do so. Most people can function perfectly in life without even the most cursory understanding of science and the scientific method. So why push it?

One of the lecturers, a certain prof, told me the reason for the new initiatives in science education was the work of politicians. Evidently, they feel that having a populace familiar with science and its concepts would help them push certain policies through much more easily. I commented that's not necessarily true, and it seemed he knew that I knew what those policies are, because he agreed.

Those policies? Kyoto, greenhouse warming, ozone layer, depletion of resources, ethical constraints, blah blah.

We ended our short discussion perfunctorily without any definitive conclusion, and since then I kept wondering to myself, why would politicans think that way? Science is a field of many questions and challenges, where theories would stand and fall on their own merits or demerits. Thinking that science would 'brainwash' people into a particular view through science was a policy doomed to failure. Or so that was what I had always thought.

Through Austrian economics and the libertarian movement, I came to be acquainted with the philosophy and world view of Karl Popper, who elucidated the criterion of falsification as a key denotion of what is and what is not scientific.

I never knew of his diametrical opposite Thomas Kuhn until a week ago, when I read a tract on chemical education's epistemology that mentioned them alongside each other, in a key but obscure event of the twentieth century called the 'Science Wars'.

Popper represented the libertarian aspects of science, where everything is subject to scrutiny and logic, and nothing is exempt. He extended science's worldview to other areas, parts of life, most notably sociology and politics. It ws important for people to be aware of alternatives and the possile consequences. He believed in fair play for conflicting theories; they must convince people by dint of their predictive ability. It was a democratic endeavour.

In contrast, Kuhn represented the authoritarian aspects, where science should be a guided affair, a single paradigm that splits off into new paradigms when existing problems are too difficult/complex to be solved by the existing paradigms. Science would be a matter of listening, consulting with the 'knowers', the High Priests, who by dint of their long year in scientific research, would know what is best for everybody else.

Essentially, Kuhn and his followers won the war. Since then, philosophy in science has been dominated by Kuhn and his disciples, even though Popper is slowly making his comeback. Science and how it has been taught has been affected as well, I think. We dictate certain things to students; they either do as we tell them, or fail the test.

That's not really science. We don't teach them logic. We don't tell them of the fallacies of reasoning. We don't tell them of the blind alleys that science stumbled into at one point or another, the conflicting viewpoints and how those issues were resolved.

We never gave them the tools to learn science on their own. One of my colleagues, when told by the principal that it wa the task of GP tutors to impart those skills, said it was too much for only GP tutors to do; everybody should pitch in.

However, Kuhn had already won; how many people in the SAJC science department know the basics of epistemology? We're the lowly priests, the imparters, the middlemen, the executors of the High Priests' will. I can rail against the bad science inherent in the ozone theory and HIV=AIDS all I want; it doesn't matter because I'm just a cog right now.

With the High Priests in control, it would be easy enough for politicians to come in and exploit the authoritarian aspects of science for their purposes. If a high priest(eg. Gallo) says a certain thing, then it certainly must be so. The people will meekly accept whatever the High Priest says, and the government/state can borrow the High Priest's power to push their own preferred policies through.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the Snuppy clone affair. So sure, we have brought down one High Priest, but the rest of the priesthood remains inviolate. It's the system that's the problem. Science, or rather, the concept of 'Big Science', are going to be the downfall of science.

What will it take to challenge them?


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