What Every High School Student Should Know about Science
By Michael Newton Keas
Because science is a core feature of modern society, everyone needs a thorough
introduction to it. In particular, every high school student should know 1)
what science is, 2) the various ways it is practiced, and 3) why it is
important. The first topic is philosophical, the second is procedural and
historical, and the third motivates students to study science.
What distinguishes science from other endeavors, such as religion,
philosophy, or history? This question, as Stephen Meyer has shown (see his
essay on the "demarcation problem" in The Creation Hypothesis), has no
conclusive answer, partly because of the amazing variety of ways science is
actually practiced. In most cases we simply recognize reputable science when we
see it. Students should be challenged to define science and to recognize why
this exercise in the philosophy of science is so difficult. In America, about
forty state departments of education define science roughly as "investigating
the natural world through the use of observation, experimentation, and logical
argument." (Jonathan Wells, "Definitions of Science in State Standards,"
www.discovery.org/csc, November 2005). Only Massachusetts and
Kansas have proposed restricting science by a definition that only allows
unguided natural causes to explain what is observed. Students should know why
this restriction is controversial.
Second, students must appreciate the variety of ways science is practiced,
which I call methodological pluralism. Laboratory scientists actively
manipulate conditions, following the standard experimental method. Astronomers
often are restricted to passively peering into deep space where celestial
objects are beyond their experimental control. Geologists study a single large
object (Earth) through methods and natural laws largely borrowed from other
scientific disciplines (especially physics and chemistry). Astronomers and
geologists sometimes use simulation models to understand large-scale, long-term
changes in the objects they study. Many physicists study tiny subatomic
particles that present unique investigative challenges. The "scientific method"
as presented in the introductory chapter of most science textbooks usually
fails to recognize the methodological diversity of actual scientific practice
(Henry H. Bauer, Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific
Students should also recognize how different beliefs shape scientific
practice. This is another form of methodological pluralism. For example, the
ancient Babylonians produced the longest sustained scientific research program
in human history (20 centuries). Although their motivation was based on
religion and astrology, their resulting mathematical astronomy wielded great
predictive power. Many celestial events could be predicted accurately in
advance (Noel Swerdlow, The Babylonian Theory of the Planets, 1998).
Students need to appreciate how various religious, anti-religious, and
non-religious viewpoints have often motivated empirically successful science.
The National Science Education Standards (http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/nses/6e.html, National
Academy Press, 1996) affirm this approach: "Scientists are influenced by
societal, cultural, and personal beliefs and ways of viewing the world. Science
is not separate from society but rather science is a part of
society." Such an approach to science education would include discussion of the
influence of naturalism in science. Naturalism in its philosophical form says
that nothing beyond nature is real. This amounts to atheism. Naturalism in
science has guided many scientists to limit themselves to material causes to
explain the natural world. This is also called methodological naturalism.
Students should be aware of these social influences on science and be
encouraged to critically evaluate them.
Students further need to learn that science is devoted to two fundamentally
distinct goals: "how things work" and "how things originated." Each of these
aims is achieved through a somewhat different collection of investigative
tools. This too is methodological pluralism. The first concern, "how things
work," encompassed nearly all science until the early 19th century, when
geology and biology acquired empirically rigorous tools for investigating "how
things originated" (Martin Rudwick, Bursting the Limits of Time,
2005). Scientists who investigate "origins" study presently existing things and
use this evidence to construct various competing hypotheses of how natural
things might have originated. Geologists--in contrast to most ancient
philosophers--largely concluded that Earth is not eternal, but had a beginning
and changed through unique stages over time.
This view was partly motivated by the Judeo-Christian view of history with
its notion of a unique beginning, unrepeatable development, and end (Rudwick,
p. 7 and 642). Real historical development replaced the ancient Greek idea of
endless cycles. Both sacred and secular viewpoints provided analogies that
guided early attempts to reconstruct Earth's history. For example, early
geologists used fossils as markers of Earth's historical record in much the
same way as human artifacts, such as coins, were important chronological
indicators in archaeology. Fossils were called "nature's coins." Such cultural
legacies from the history of science deserve a place in science curricula. The
retelling of the early 19th-century discovery of Earth's history might help
clear up the common misunderstanding that "science cannot include the study of
past non-repeatable events in nature." The earth and life sciences since the
19th century, and cosmology since the 20th century, have identified and
explained many past events on the basis of currently existing evidence. While
not as certain as repeatable laboratory experiments, these results are among
the most remarkable achievements of modern science.
Third, we must convince students that science is important. Our
understanding of "how things work" helps us to better manage Earth's natural
resources and to enhance human health. The scientific debate over the origin of
the universe and life deserves special attention in science education because
it affects the way we view life and human purpose. The breathtaking intricacy
and complexity of even the simplest bacterial cell with its highly specified
molecular machines should evoke awe among students. Some students may attribute
this apparent design to autonomous nature (naturalism). Others may conclude
that this points to a designer beyond the realm of nature. Yet others may
respond in other ways. The science instructor should help students develop
their own opinions in a manner that takes science (and other scholarship)
seriously. Without this balance, science education reduces to propaganda.
One way to motivate students to study science and to think critically is to
examine case studies of scientific controversy. Through case studies students
will gain insight into the standard scientific procedure of inferring the best
explanation from among multiple competing hypotheses. Charles Darwin argued, "a
fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and
arguments on both sides of each question" (Origin of Species, p. 2).
In today's climate of public educational policy, this would mean, at a minimum,
teaching not just the strengths of Darwin's theory, but also the evidence that
challenges it. For example, any complete theory of biological origins must
examine fossil evidence. The fossils of the "Cambrian explosion" show virtually
all the basic forms of animal life appearing suddenly without clear precursors.
It is not merely the geologically sudden appearance that is notable, but the
observation that major categories (animal phyla) appear before the
multiplication of small differences among species. Darwin's theory predicts the
opposite: small differences multiplying, and by means of natural selection,
later giving rise to major anatomical differences. Students ought to know about
this evidential challenge to Darwinism, but few biology textbooks mention
Consider another example. Many biology texts tell about the Galapagos
finches whose beaks have varied in shape and size over time. They also recall
how some bacteria have acquired resistance to certain antibiotics. Such
episodes are presented as conclusive evidence for evolution. And indeed they
are, depending on how one defines evolution (Stephen Meyer and Michael Keas,
"The Meanings of Evolution," in Darwinism, Design, and Public
Education, 2003). Yet few biology textbooks distinguish the different
meanings associated with "evolution"- a term that can refer to anything from
trivial change to the creation of life by strictly mindless, material forces.
Nor do they explain that the processes responsible for cyclical variations in
beak size do not explain where birds or biologists came from in the first
place. As a host of distinguished biologists (e.g. Stuart Kauffman, Rudolf
Raff, and George Miklos) have explained in recent technical papers, small-scale
"microevolutionary" change cannot be extrapolated to explain large-scale
"macroevolutionary" innovation. Microevolutionary changes (such as variation in
beak shape) merely utilize or express existing genetic information; the
large-scale macroevolutionary change necessary to assemble new organs or body
plans requires the creation of entirely new genetic information. Leading
evolutionary biologists know that this distinction poses serious difficulties
for modern Darwinism. Students should too.
A "teach the controversy" approach presents biology in a livelier and less
dogmatic way. Students will learn science as it is actually practiced.
Scientists often debate how to best interpret data and they even argue over
what counts as legitimate "scientific explanation." Controversy is normal
within science (not just an intrusion). Students will learn to distinguish
better between evidence (factual data) and inference (reasoning to
conclusions). Students need these skills as citizens, whether they choose
careers in science or other fields. Teaching multiple sides in an "issues
approach" to science has, of late, been recognized as a superior educational
approach, not just in origins issues, but also in other areas. The recent
scientific debate over Darwinism and intelligent design theory is of great
interest to students who care about the big questions of life. Research based
on design theory shows great promise of producing profound results in the near
future. To the degree to which it succeeds, the science education community
will have increasingly stronger reasons to incorporate this theory into the
teaching of science.
Advocates of the Darwin-only approach to education in the life sciences
often point to the National Science Education Standards (NSES) to
bolster their position. The NSES constitute the premier non-compulsory national
document that currently is guiding much reform in science education in the
United States. Ironically, statements in the NSES support the major points in
this essay. The NSES call upon students to "identify their assumptions, use
critical and logical thinking, and consider alternative explanations" (http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/nses/overview.html). If
students are simply told to swallow Darwin whole as a "fact," how will this
help them to become critical, skeptical, scientific thinkers? Among the content
standards for grades 9 through 12 is the aim that all students should develop
an understanding of biological evolution. We enthusiastically affirm this goal.
In fact, we want students to learn more about Darwinism than most Darwin-only
advocates wish. The "more" we have in mind includes the weaknesses of Darwin's
theory (not just a selective presentation of its strengths). Microevolutionary
speciation is well established, and is a tribute to the permanent legacy of
Darwin's contribution to human knowledge. Macroevolution is another matter.
Experts disagree and students should not be sheltered from this dispute.
The NSES advocate the use of "history to elaborate various aspects of
scientific inquiry, the nature of science, and science in different historical
and cultural perspectives" (http://www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/nses/6e.html). In other
words, the history of science can be deployed in the science curriculum to help
students know what science is, the various ways it is practiced, and why it is
important to the rest of human experience.
Mike Keas earned a Ph.D. in the history of science in 1992 from the
University of Oklahoma. He experienced some of the last historic moments behind
the Berlin Wall as a Fulbright scholar in East Germany. He is Professor
Emeritus of the University of Memphis and has twice served as President of the
Association for the Rhetoric of Science. He has contributed articles to several
scholarly anthologies and journals. As a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute,
he co-authors high school and college science curriculum. He also leads
workshops for science teachers on how to teach about controversial subjects
such as Darwinism.