If you’ve ever been frustrated at having to explain the difference between a scientific theory and a hypothesis, you’re hardly alone. But it’s not just folks without a science background who get confused over the terminology; even some science grads have trouble telling a fact from a law. And some in the scientific community worry that this signals a deeper problem with current science education.James Williams, a science education lecturer at the University of Sussex, teaches university graduates with science degrees who wish to become science educators. In this month’s issue of The Scientist, Williams wrote that his graduate students, despite possessing adequate technical knowledge, frequently fall short on the basic language of scientific practice. In surveying 74 such graduates from various universities, Williams reports that:
• 76% equated a fact with 'truth' and 'proven' • 23% defined a theory as 'unproven ideas' with less than half (47%) recognizing a theory as a well evidenced exposition of a natural phenomenon • 34% defined a law as a rule not to be broken, and forty-one percent defined it as an idea that science fully supports. • Definitions of 'hypothesis' were the most consistent, with 61% recognizing the predictive, testable nature of hypotheses. The results show a lack of understanding of what scientific theories and laws are. And the nature of a 'fact' in science was not commonly understood, with only 11% defining a fact as evidence or data. Here are just a few of their definitions of a scientific theory: "An idea based on a little evidence, not fact"; "an idea about something, not necessarily true"; "unproven ideas."
Although this survey is hardly proof of widespread epidemic of ignorance among recent science grads, it does suggest that many science programs educate students only in the technical aspects of their field, failing to provide them with the underlying context and purpose of scientific study. And this gap has larger consequences for the non-scientific community, as editor Richard Gallagher notes:
Those students who go on to grad school will presumably be exposed to aspects of the philosophy of science, if only through engaging in research. But this is not so for the group that Williams is working with, trainee teachers. It is an imperative that they and others that are headed into non-research careers have a strong foundation in the philosophy of science. These newly minted graduates are the frontline in promoting rational scientific thought to the community at large – in schools, banks, offices, publishing houses – wherever they take up employment.
Williams fears that failing to educate science graduates in the history and philosophy of science, these grads are ill-equipped to educate a public whose lives increasingly depend on a basic understanding of how scientists operate and what scientific findings really mean. Both he and Gallagher believe that introducing such courses to undergraduate science curricula could go a long way toward making science education more complete. What Makes Science 'Science'? Why the Philosophy of Science Matters [via LabLit.com]