Science Studies across General Education: A Broader View of Scientific Literacy

By Hammer, Christy; Dusek, Val | Peer Review, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Science Studies across General Education: A Broader View of Scientific Literacy


Hammer, Christy, Dusek, Val, Peer Review


Both humanists and scientists need to grapple with the ethical and social issues presented by science and technology. Many issues in contemporary politics and social policy derive from the social consequences of scientific and technological developments. The votes of average citizens determine the funding and implementation of many policies that involve science and technology. Nonscientists need to be able to distinguish scientific evidence from political propaganda and pseudoscience. They need to be able to separate genuine scientific data from rhetoric and propaganda used to advocate policy positions. Despite the ever-growing body of scientific knowledge to convey to undergraduates in lectures and laboratories and the increasing importance of science and technology to society, there is even less room in science courses to cover the social issues of science and technology. As a result, more institutions are working to incorporate the sociology and history of science into integrative general education programs for all students. This is not an easy task. In this article, we discuss the imperative for this trend, the banners to integrating the sociology and history of science into the curriculum, and an approach to science studies adopted by the University of Southern Maine at Lewiston-Aubum (USM-LA).

In todays world, students are bombarded by "scientific" claims. Even science majors often lack the conceptual tools to evaluate pseudoscientific claims outside their specialties. In our own teaching, we have encountered physics majors claiming to have magical and psychic powers and senior biochemistry majors who believe in young earth creationism. Additionally, many students have a naive and simplistic conception of the relation of science to technology and lack an understanding of the social, ethical, economic, and political dimensions oi science and technology.

Knowledge and skills in the' sciences and in technology are of growing importance in modern life. Colleges struggle to provide an appropriate balance between science and the other disciplines in the curriculum. Likewise, many current revisions of general education stress interdisciplinary approaches and a focus on civic-mindedness. Increased "scientific literacy" can result from creatively weaving the history, sociology, and philosophy of science and technology' (science studies) throughout general education curricula.

The History, Sociology, and Philosophy of Science

There are several strands of recent scholarship that can inform efforts to incorporate these important science studies issues into the general education curriculum. Through the study of the history and philosophy of science, students come to realize that there are, in fact, a number of different scientific methods. A historical perspective can teach students that different scientific disciplines today emphasize different methods, systems of logic, and even notions of epistemology than they did in other historical periods. For instance, some sciences have been primarily descriptive, such as natural history or early astronomy. Other sciences have been primarily inductive and experimental: earlier in the history of physics and chemistry and later in biology and psychology. Still other sciences have been primarily deductive, such as earlier celestial mechanics or string theory today.

Recent scholarship on the relation between science and technology can also be very useful in these courses. Because of the extent to which an understanding of technology depends on theoretical science, many people assume that technology is simply pure science applied. Students may not understand how social and political concerns influence technological choices and developments or the extent to which technological innovations are the result of tinkering and accident.

Finally, arguably the newest and most controversial strand of scholarship is the sociology of scientific knowledge, which builds on the insights of Thomas Kuhn and addresses the role of authority, negotiation, and prestige in the growth of scientific consensus about a fact or theory.

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