Memorandum submitted by Professor Nancy
Cartwright, Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method,
London School of Economics
THE PLACE OF PHILOSOPHY AND HISTORY OF SCIENCE
IN THE SCIENCE CURRICULUM
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
(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.
(a) how scientific ideas are presented, evaluated
(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
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
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
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.
4. Some philosophical questions specific
to the particular sciences under study should be addressed. For
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.