Science: The sociologists of science should shut up

They claim science is little more than a social construct, another set of myths
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I AM appalled at some of the suggestions being made for teaching science in the new National Curriculum: it seems that the sociologists may have secured a victory with their ideas about the nature of science. For example, the proposals for Key Stage 3 published by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority include: "Pupils consider how some scientific ideas are supported by experimental evidence and how this may be important to present-day scientific developments."

But is not the very essence of science that it is based on evidence? One wonders what pupils will be taught to illustrate that some scientific ideas are not based on experimental evidence. Of course, work at the edges of science may be controversial, but the core is astonishingly sound. It would be helpful to have a single example of science taught at the school level that is unsoundly based; how much of school physics and chemistry is unsound?

When we come to Key Stage 4 things get worse. Pupils should be taught "how controversies can arise from different ways of interpreting empirical evidence and models based on this evidence". But there is no hint that such controversies are almost always temporary, and are resolved when more evidence or better theories are available. Then comes the true intellectual underpinning of all this. Pupils should be taught "ways in which scientific ideas may be affected by the contexts in which they develop - eg social, historical, moral and spiritual - and how these contexts may affect whether or not the ideas are accepted". This seems to come straight out of the programme of the group of sociologists of science who claim that science is little more than a social construct, another set of myths, little different from any other beliefs.

It is the claim of one of these sociologists that "there is no obligation upon anyone framing a view of the world to take account of what 20th-century science has to say". Essentially, it declares that science tells us nothing, nothing at all about the way the world works.

Science is obviously a social process. No one is more aware of this than scientists themselves. We compete, collaborate, try to get our papers into the best journals and to persuade granting bodies to give us money. It is the very interaction between scientists co-operating to arrive at the laws of nature that gives science its enormous strength.

Finally, the students must be taught "to consider the power and limitations of science, including awareness of the kinds of questions science can and cannot answer". Is there any aspect of the way the world works that we can be sure will forever remain insoluble?

It is tragic that there is no suggestion about the importance of clinical trials; nor that science is the best way to understand how the world works. Or even that science can be beautiful: what better example than DNA, where the replication of the lovely double helix leads to the genes that control how cells behave - and so much of our lives.

The writer is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London

Comments