Monday, March 24, 2008

Science Editorial on Importance of Science Education

The latest issue of Science has a really powerful, sage editorial by Bruce Alberts. Alberts' message is one I think we really need to take seriously (and I would also add Richard Dwakins's message to this as well).

I think Alberts's message is an especially important one for political philosophers to hear. For the dominance of respect for multiculturalism and value pluralism has dulled the critical edge of too many (potential) social critics. The true stakes of these debates are often trivialized when framed as a debate about respect for "pluralism". It wasn't that long ago that people believed the world was flat, and many still believe that men and women are unequal. And yet the purported value of respecting such pluralism is dwarfed by the benefits of overcoming them. Overcoming false beliefs and dogma is necessary for lasting and significant social progress. And there is still a long ways to go before we can emancipate humanity from dogma and prejudice (recall this troubling survey).

Education about science impacts many dimensions of our social lives, from our ability to tolerate others to the speed of advances in science, medicine and economic prosperity. Given how high the stakes are, it is a sad reflection on the state of contemporary political philosophy that a huge divide separates science and political philosophy. But perhaps if enough philosophers listen to the message of people like Alberts, then things could change. Here is a sample from his editorial:

The scientific enterprise has greatly advanced our understanding of the natural world and has thereby enabled the creation of countless medicines and useful devices. It has also led to behaviors that have improved lives. The public appreciates these practical benefits of science, and science and scientists are generally respected, even by those who are not familiar with how science works or what exactly it has discovered.

But society may less appreciate the advantage of having everyone aquire, as part of their formal education, the ways of thinking and behaving that are central to the practice of successful science: scientific habits of mind. These habits include a skeptical attitude toward dogmatic claims and a strong desire for logic and evidence. As famed astronomer Carl Sagan put it, science is our best "bunk" detector. Individuals and societies clearly need a means to logically test the onslaught of constant clever attempts to manipulate our purchasing and political decisions. They also need to challenge what is irrational, including the intolerance that fuels so many regional and global conflicts.

So how does this relate to science education? Might it be possible to encourage, across the world, scientific habits of mind, so as to create more rational societies everywhere? In principle, a vigorous expansion of science education could provide the world with such an opportunity, but only if scientists, educators, and policy-makers redefine the goals of science education, beginning with college-level teaching. Rather than only conveying what science has discovered about the natural world, as is done now in most countries, a top priority should be to empower all students with the knowledge and practice of how to think like a scientist.

Scientists share a common way of reaching conclusions that is based not only on evidence and logic, but also requires honesty, creativity, and openness to new ideas. The scientific community can thus often work together across cultures, bridging political divides. Such collaborations have mostly focused on the discovery of new knowledge about the natural world. But scientists can also collaborate effectively on developing and promulgating a form of science education for all students that builds scientific habits of mind.

Recall, from my earlier post, how high the costs are when we combine political power with dogma. So we cannot afford to neglect the importance of science education.