Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Professor Nancy Cartwright, Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method, London School of Economics


  The current "Ideas and Evidence" Knowledge, Skills and Understanding requirements for KS3 and KS4 are well chosen. These are important issues for all secondary science students. This is what they say:

  At KS3 pupils should be taught:

    (a)  about the interplay between empirical questions, evidence and scientific explanations using historical and contemporary examples;

    (b)  that it is important to test explanations by using them to make predictions and by seeing if evidence matches the predictions;

    (c)  about the ways in which scientists work today and how they worked in the past, including the roles of experimentation, evidence and creative thought in the development of scientific ideas.

  At KS4:

    (a)  how scientific ideas are presented, evaluated and disseminated;

    (b)  how scientific controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence;

    (c)  ways in which empirical work can be affected by the context in which it takes place, and how these contexts may affect whether or not ideas are accepted;

    (d)  to consider the power and limitations of science in addressing industrial, social and environmental questions, including the kinds of questions science can and cannot answer, uncertainties in scientific knowledge, and the ethical issues involved.

  These issues are squarely in the domain of philosophy and history of science and students would benefit greatly from material and discussions from these fields explicitly concerning these issues. A number of different purposes would be served by treating the issues directly:

    —  To provide students with a deeper understanding of the sciences they study and how they are practiced.

    —  To stimulate more interest by looking at real cases of how scientists have come to grips with problems.

    —  To provide citizens with a better understanding of the kinds of considerations relevant in debates and decisions over science policy.

  In particular I would advise work in three general areas:

  1.  Scientific methods, including both methods of testing and of application.

  Students should learn about the relative strengths and weaknesses of different fundamental methods. For example:

    —  Ethical and scientific issues concerning randomised clinical trials, which are currently the gold standard in medicine. For example, often a large number of patients are given a placebo when there is already some independent evidence in favour of a treatment. Also, the trials are very costly and if the implementation is not exactly right they may not be able to deliver high probability of correct results);

    —  Advantages and disadvantages of computer simulations (as in the recent foot and mouth decisions);

    —  Methods for testing and assuring the safety of new techniques and new technologies (as in field tests of genetically modified foods).

  2.  Reliability of scientific knowledge:

  Students should consider the ways scientific knowledge might accumulate despite major scientific revolutions in which earlier highly successful scientific theories are replaced by theories that are very different. They should also consider ways in which scientific knowledge can be reliable despite the fact that science evolves in a social context and the developments will inevitably be influenced both by intellectual and social environment in which it is carried out.

  In philosophy of science, these questions are treated under the heading "realism and objectivity in science". An explicit treatment of the philosophical issues here will help students to take a balanced position, neither blind trust in what scientists say nor summary dismissal or rampant relativism.

  3.  What to do when there are scientific conflicts:

  Students should come to recognise that evidence seldom points all in the same direction. Moreover, scientific experts are likely to disagree over complex matters. They should learn ways in which we can arrive at rational decisions in the face of conflict of evidence and of expert testimony. These can include not only cost/benefit analyses and simple models of decision under uncertainty, but also less formal methods such as extensive debate and hedging our bets.

  In addition:

  4.  Some philosophical questions specific to the particular sciences under study should be addressed. For example:

    —  What are space and time?

    —  Are probabilities in the world or are they just our best estimates of what is going to happen?

    —  What is the relationship between our brains and our minds? What is consciousness?;

    —  Are chemistry and biology really nothing but physics at base?

  Discussions of these topics can excite students and encourage a deeper understanding of the topics they study.

  With respect to the history of science, students should look at specific case studies that show the development of ideas and the back and forth of false starts and breakthroughs, as well as the role of social and political factors. (Lord Kelvin's physics, which he developed in tandem with his work on the steam engine, is a good example here.) In order to encourage more students to enter engineering and the applied sciences, the cases studied should include examples like the early development of the British air industry, the design and building of radar at the start of World War II or the evolution of the computer.

  There are currently texts and readers available for beginning university students in these areas of philosophy and history of science. Production of similar materials by philosophers and historians for school students should not be difficult.

February 2002

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