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Science unlimited

By Andrew Baker - posted Monday, 20 July 2009


While Austrian thinker Paul Feyerabend shocked the science community 35 years ago by claiming science doesn’t always follow the rules of reason and that adopting an “anything goes” approach might be most beneficial for the growth of knowledge, he was not alone in his criticism of reason. What he did, in fact, was develop some ideas of 18th-century thinker David Hume, 19th-century liberal John Stuart Mill and 20th-century physicist Tom Kuhn.

Kuhn and Feyerabend were science historians. They showed, using the evidence of history, that some of the greatest shifts in scientific thinking from Copernicus to Galileo to Newton were not based solely on reason, science’s golden rule. A human component was undeniable.

Science, Feyerabend claimed, is a complex collage, which defies simple explanation or strict rules. Scientists may apply reason, but reason is not the only process used in science. As well, in times of revolutionary upheaval, influential scientists often use the entire irrational arsenal of techniques at their disposal to persuade their peers: style, humour, flexibility, elegance and an understanding of human frailty - in short, propaganda.

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Yet it was precisely in being prepared to break the rules that such scientists moved science forward. Indeed, without appealing to our humanity, science would long ago have come to a grinding halt. The multifaceted characteristics of science remain poorly understood.

As unsettling as Feyerabend’s notions may be, he realised that unless the reasons for an argument are good in the extreme case, they are of no use in any case, and one of his arguments in the extreme case was that science should be removed from public school education in the same way religion has been.

Did Feyerabend truly want science to be abolished from education programs? I don’t think so. Rather, he was arguing that if we see fit to remove religion from public education, then equitably, we ought to see fit to remove science as well, since both are systems of belief. If our aim is to omit agendas and promote freedom of thought, it’s hypocritical to remove one and not the other.

Let’s turn his argument around - why remove either belief system from the education of our students? Indeed, why deny our students knowledge of any of humanity’s diverse cultures of thought?

If we want true freedom in education, we need recall the teachings of John Stuart Mill: everyone’s ideas deserve a fair hearing. This glue binds and strengthens society. The worth of a society is ultimately determined by the worth of the individuals composing it.

The same applies in science, says Feyerabend. All methods, cultures and ideas should be weighed on their merits - and the integration of diverse methods, cultures and ideas may help to strengthen science and improve our mode of understanding the world.

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What better way is there to encourage open-mindedness and ensure true intellectual freedom in our children than to introduce them early in their education to the history of human thought? Why not introduce a subject to the curriculum that runs throughout primary and secondary education - Human Belief Systems? This would encompass the diverse array of human ideas of how the world works, science being just one of many, as well as the entire rich history of each belief system.

This would surely emphasise the unity of human thought and help our students explore the broad areas where there’s an overlap of our beliefs. It would also supply nourishment for hungry young minds that are busily growing knowledge.

The tradition of science is surely valuable to society, but perhaps no more so than other traditions - religions, astrology, voodoo and the like. Of course, science need not absorb all the varied doctrines of humanity into practice, but pigeonholing them all as unimportant to science without consideration surely only limits us in our quest for knowledge. Dogma, in religion or science, is anathema to education, only serving to limit our understanding of the world.

The scientific enterprise works in shades of grey. Indeed, there is less non-science than we might think because science as an enterprise sprawls beyond the borders of method we have crafted around it.

It’s through flexibility and diversity, not blind adherence to rules, that we can best ensure educational freedom in today’s students and open-mindedness in tomorrow’s leaders.

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First published in Teacher Magazine in June-July 2009.



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About the Author

Andrew Baker works in the School of Natural Resource Sciences at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. His book Questions of Science (Revised Edition) is forthcoming from Pearson Prentice Hall. Andrew teaches in the Environmental Science and Ecology majors at all levels of the undergraduate and postgraduate program. His research interests are varied and broad in scope, including: environmental management, biodiversity, population genetics, systematics/taxonomy, palaeontology, philosophy of science and learning/teaching methodologies.

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