Friday, December 12, 2008

Answer Key

It is both heart-warming and disturbing that so many of you are so cynical. I refer of course to the results of the pop quiz on Tuesday, in which I asked readers to guess which listed item was not a real criterion for a physical science course to be approved as a general education requirement.

I must confess that the quiz was a bit of a trick question because I took information from several universities and melded and merged and modified a bit, but without changing the core of the various criteria I found.. with one exception that I modified a bit more than the others.

Perhaps the most deeply cynical among you will be gladdened to know that #1 (The course must deepen a student's understanding of how physical phenomena involving non-living matter and processes can be investigated by the scientific method through the development of hypotheses that can be tested by observation or experiment) is a real criterion at some universities.

Whatever joy you may find in this knowledge may, however, be destroyed when you learn that the active learning criterion (#3) was not fabricated.

And it will likely not surprise you, given the rant at the beginning of Tuesday's post, that #4 is real (Phenomena to be investigated must explicitly involve the interactions of humans with the physical world and its non-living constituents).

I really wish I could tell you that #5 and #6 were made up. I think #5 is weird (The course must explore the limitations of science and scientists, and how these limitations impact public policy issues of regional or global significance). It could be fairly harmless, or it could be 'code' for requiring science professors to reveal to students to that scientists don't know everything.. or at least, that they don't know everything about Certain Topics.

I despise criterion #6: Students in this course must learn that scientific problems can only be successfully solved within the context of the ethics of a particular society. It pains me that someone somewhere on some committee really believes that and thinks it is a sane and appropriate criterion for any course at any university.

Although criterion #2 may exist at some university beyond the scope of my limited research into this topic, I did in fact make it up: Physical phenomena to be investigated must be of major significance. Highly specialized topics of primary interest only to scientists are unlikely to be approved.

It sounds like it could be real, though, doesn't it? I would not be too disturbed if a committee somewhere had concerns about professors blathering on about their obscure research specialty (although I am quite sure that almost never occurs in general ed science classes), especially since one can debate the concept of 'major significance'. Innocuous fake criterion #2, however, pales in comparison to some of the evil criteria further down the list.


Anonymous said...

What's wrong with #3? Active learning sounds like a fine idea to me; aren't they just saying that they want the science courses to have a lab component?

barbara said...

@David Carlton: not all science is equally fit for active learning. I am a scientist, and I haven't seen a lab since high school (and I didn't learn anything there, either).

@fsp: do you have a reference for evil criterion number 6? That I thought must be false. Or maybe I hoped it. Tell me it comes from another country, very far away.

Anonymous said...

Just because you "despise" criterion 6 from your list doesn't mean that it is false or unreasonable. It is a position that people studying philosophy and/or sociology of science sometimes take (and others in those same disciplines rail against it...go figure). Thomas Kuhn is probably one of the best known philosophers to take such a line (although perhaps not as rhetorically flamboyant as your formulation). I agree that saying that students "must" learn the proposition is way over the top. Still, it is not a bad idea to expose students to that idea, in the context of other competing theses about the objective claims of science. Also, many scientists get their feathers all ruffled when they hear things like that, so a science classroom is probably not the place to teach it. On the other hand, I study philosophy, yet my undergraduate institution forces me to take biological and physical science classes which are much more objectively demanding (i.e. in terms of time and money) and narrowly focused than required courses in other disciplines. To return the favor, maybe you science types should have to rub up against the silly things *we* come up with every once in a while. :)

Female Science Professor said...

aaron, you have it backwards -- I despite criterion #6 because it is false and unreasonable. There are many examples throughout history of societies that attempted to solve a 'scientific' problem within the context of that society's ethics and values, and that society was doomed. Words like "only" are troubling in criteria such as these. Furthermore, I think that this topic is something that could be discussed in a class, not taught as an accepted fact.

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of good things that fall under the category "active learning." However, not every topic is equally conducive to lab experiences in a course for non-majors. Moreover, a GE course that includes a significant unit on social, economic, policy, ethical, or historical aspects of some scientific topic (e.g. stem cell ethics, economics of energy and global warming) would be particularly ill-suited to a lab.

Also, "active learning" doesn't always mean labs. It can mean a variety of interactive or group-based teaching strategies advocated by various pedagogy researchers. Some of those things have substantial merit in particular contexts, but some of those things are way over-rated and pushed by people with a quasi-religious zeal. Writing "active learning" into a university requirement could mean that every course must now get a blessing from the high priests of pedagogy research. Those people may not be very influential at a lot of research universities, but at some undergraduate institutions their influence is growing.

Anonymous said...

Criterion Number 6 is nuts! Science investigations and data are not supposed to be framed within an ethical context. What nonsense! It sounds like this criterion came from a parochial school. My university has some pretty awful criteria for "general education" courses, but thankfully not his one.

EliRabett said...

We have #3, because it is about the only chance to get the humanities majors to actually do anything with their hands and to emphasize to them that science and reality have a hand shake agreemet. The fine arts majors do really well, the humanities folk. ...

Anonymous said...

Anonymous - excuse me, but this just shows how important it is that all people conducting science are trained in ethics. It has nothing to do with "parochial school", even though you may have personally experienced trauma attending school there.

It is important that scientists understand that science does not exist in a vacuum. We are members of a society, both a scientific community and the community at large. We have a very large obligation to think about the things we are planning on investigating, informing the public of possible consequences, explaining why we think we need all this money and how we spent it.

If the consequences or our planned research are harmful to one or more individuals or the planet, we have to weigh whether it is right to continue the research. You need to look into some of the research conducted during the Third Reich. Interesting questions were asked, such as how long can individuals survive in cold water? But killing people, in this case people interred in concentration camps, in the process of finding this answer is just not ethical.

I agree with FSP about the word "only", although I was very shocked to see her come out so vehemently against #6. It sounded at first to me as if she was against telling students about ethics.

We have a duty as teachers of science to include ethical considerations in all of our courses. No, we won't be teaching the fine points of different ethical schools of thought. But we need to train our students to consider the consequences of their research.

quasarpulse said...

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor, did/would the theory of gravity stop making accurate predictions in a society that believed it was ethically wrong to question Biblical literalism? If not, then the statement that "scientific problems can only be successfully solved within the context of the ethics of a particular society" is falsified; some scientific problems can only be successfully solved by rejecting the ethics of a particular society.

If you want to talk about biology specifically (that being the focus of most discussions of scientific ethics), I will still argue that the discussion of whether or not e.g. genetic engineering is wrong has absolutely, positively no bearing on whether or not it produces the predicted results.

The question of whether or not we ought to do research on something can be an ethical question. The validity of the science itself is not; it might be a philosophical question ("is there really a reality out there and are we actually measuring it?") but granting that the answer to that question is "yes," the science either works or doesn't work. Reality is ethically neutral.

Pagan Topologist said...

Stuff like #6 was code for "We shouldn't have built the Atom Bomb when I was a student. But of course it is easy to argue that the benefits of nuclear research jumpstarted by the Manhattan Project. have far outweighed the horror created.

Anonymous said...

@quasarpulse, have the creationists in the States so thoroughly equated "ethics" with "the Bible"? Shocking. Please don't confuse "morals" with "ethics".

There is no such thing as "ethically neutral", because all of the people participating in the scientific endeavor bring their own personal moral and ethical framework into the research. Refusing to see this by pretending that somehow our investigations can shake all of this off doesn't make it go away.

My specific point is for scientists to think about the consequences of their research. They can't, of course, foresee all possible consequences. But a few moments of reflection and a justification for the research is within reason.

I myself no longer do research in the field in which I received my doctorate, because of such considerations.

@Pagan Topologist, your comments shock and sadden me. Do you have any comprehension of what exactly the "horror" was? You probably don't know anyone personally who was harmed or killed in Hiroshima. There are still people today getting sick by living near nuclear power stations. And it still escapes me how we are going to keep our atomic waste secure for the thousands of years to come. Okay, I won't be here. But I do feel that I have a duty to the generations that come after me to explain what it entails.

Don't just do the research because you can. Reflect.

However poorly #6 was worded, help reword it so that it does, indeed, make sense.

Anonymous said...

I think that EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor's reading of #6 is correct, as opposed to FSP's and aaron_e's interpretation.

But it's still flat-out wrong. We require informed consent and other protections of research subjects because ethical considerations take priority over scientific productivity, not because ethics determine scientific success. Failure to understand that is why embryonic stem-cell research opponents can be labeled "anti-science" by people who seem to think that we don't routinely impose such limits on research all the time.

She seems to understand that, but doesn't seem especially troubled by the passing off of a completely defensible ethical stance as a completely dishonest scientific claim.

Unknown said...

What's wrong with #5 and #6? You don't think science has a context that dictates what scientists can and can't research, thus influence what we can and can't learn? Or is there something else about them?

(Context: is our ability to develop successful gene therapies for cerebral palsy, Alzheimer's, diabetes restricted by what society claims is ethical or acceptable?)

Unknown said...

Oh, I think I understand now - it's the "only" in #6. I didn't read that as saying that failure isn't possible if science is done within a specific context, but rather that it's not possible to succeed without taking those contexts into consideration.

Did that help? Or did I just make my own initial question even worse?

(Also, let me note for the benefit of other readers that what aaron_e said also applies to those of us who study the history of science.)