‘the uncertainty of it all – understanding the nature of science’

With the implementation of the 2007 NZ Curriculum comes the need for teachers to think about how best to help their students to develop an understanding of the nature of science.

The Nature of Science is the overarching unifying strand. Through it, students learn what science is and how scientists work. They develop the skills, attitudes, and values to build a foundation for understanding the world. They come to appreciate that while scientific knowledge is durable, it is also constantly re-evaluated in the light of new evidence. They learn how scientists carry out investigations, and they come to see science as a socially valuable knowledge system. They learn how science ideas are communicated and to make links between scientific knowledge and everyday decisions and actions. (from the NZ Curriculum, 2007) 

But to do this, teachers need resources. From time to time a colleague & I had tossed around the idea of writing a book for just this purpose, looking at how scientific ideas have developed over time and the relationship between science & society. Well, I’ve just finished reading through the book I’d have liked to write: The uncertainty of it all: understanding the nature of science, by Jane Young (2010).

(At this point I need to let you know that I could be a biased observer, having seen an earlier, draft, version of this book and its accompanying CD-ROM.)

Jane decided to write this book after her experiences with a Year 9 class who "had issues with science" and were quite hostile to her attempts to lead them to engage with topics such as evolution and global warming. "Scientists," they said, "don’t know what they’re talking about." This seemed to be a reflection of a wider lack of understanding of what science is all about: that it’s evidence-based, & that scientists’ understanding of the world is thus subject to change if the evidence demands this.

So,The uncertainty of it all begins with a chapter on what science is & what it’s not. (Apparently Ernest Rutherford once said that "science is what scientists do", which isn’t particularly helpful when you’re trying to nail the idea for a bunch of young teenagers!) Next is a section on the history and development of science, before we move on to the language of science as distinct from pseudoscience (which is generally untestable, not particularly logical, lacks plausible mechanisms – homeopathy, anyone?, disregards or ignores existing data and theories, and often claims that its finds are ignored by ‘the Establishment’).

The section on how science works includes ‘What are scientists really like?" This includes some of my own favourite examples, including the eccentric Henry Cavendish & also Beatrix Potter, who besides being a popular & successful author of stories for children was an accomplishd botanist. They’re mostly no more weird than anyone else, they don’t all wear white coats – and they get things wrong: the great physicist Lord Kelvin, for example, commented that "X-rays will prove to be a hoax." And the paths to scientific discovery are many and varied. While careful observation, experimentation and analysis are important, insight and plain old good luck have their place.

And I was happy to see "science and statistics" receive several pages 🙂 A reasonably large number of students come into my first-year biology classes with no statistical knowledge (& sometimes no maths), which presents a few problems when they get into experimentation and data analysis. But even more importantly, students who’ve been exposed to experimental design & the concept of probability are better equipped to think critically about the multiplicity of pseudoscientific claims they’ll encounter over the years.

The final chapters of the book deal with people and science: ‘A love-hate relationship" begins by noting that while we use the outputs of science and technology on a daily basis, our human need for certainty doesn’t always sit well with the potential for change that is part of good science. What’s  more, science can challenge comfortable beliefs; it "asks people to see things as they are and not as they believe or feel them to be." Jane then goes on to look at criticisms of science before dealing with the interplay between science, morals and ethics, using examples (the infamous Tuskegee study and our own ‘unfortunate experiment, among others) that should be good starting points for productive classroom discussion.

 "A human endeavour" also offers these starters, covering misunderstandings about science, examples of using the scientific toolkit as a basis for making informed decisions (are cell phones implicated in cancer? does chelation therapy help ‘cure’ autism?), and highlighting some of the astounding achievements that science has made over the last few hundred years

Jane’s hope for her book is that it will help "to communicate… both the excitement and the uncertainty of the human endeavour that is science." I think it succeeds 🙂

Jane Young (2010) The Uncertainty of it all: understanding the nature of science. Triple Helix Resources Ltd www.biologyresources.co.nz

3 thoughts on “‘the uncertainty of it all – understanding the nature of science’”

  • herr doktor bimler says:

    Beatrix Potter, who besides being a popular & successful author of stories for children was an accomplishd botanist
    Posts on lichen symbiosis please?

  • Funnily, I was describing lichen symbiosis the other day – in response to someone being impressed with their hardiness and ability to grow on rock. The other topic I like in this vein are the endolithic microbial communities. (Now if only I had my old student essay on this, I would re-work it as a blog post…!)

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