Lewis Wolpert: 'Science is the best and only way to understand how the world works'

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The Independent Online

What are the key features of science that students should learn at school? I have never taught science to schoolchildren, but nevertheless have some views. Of course, they need to learn about the basic sciences - mathematics, chemistry, physics and biology - but there is also the issue of the nature of science itself.

They might have to consider how others, particularly those in the humanities, think about science, and how hostile to science a number of novels have been. Just consider the effect of the novels Frankenstein and Brave New World on the image of science. And is it not a puzzle why there are very, very few modern novels in which the scientist comes out in a positive light, or why women scientists so rarely feature?

Could this be because all science goes against common sense and thus for non-scientists it is unnatural?

Just consider the Sun, which clearly moves around the Earth, but we know it is the other way round. And then there is Newton and his laws of motion. I am still amazed that force does not cause motion but acceleration. There are lots of other examples that would include continental drift (Africa and South America were once together), that it is high tide on the side of the Earth away from the Moon, and that we are here by virtue of evolution which is based on chance events.

Science, children should be taught, is special and only one society discovered it - the ancient Greeks. This may not sound politically correct, but it is true. They were the first to understand logic and contradiction, and to stand back from the world in order to try and understand how things worked. Just consider my hero Archimedes, the greatest of all scientists, for he had few shoulders to stand on. I am pretty sure that in physics no one teaches his elegant proof of why using a simple balance, that has a heavy weight on one side and a light one on the other, the distances of the weights from the centre, the fulcrum, must be in proportion to how heavy they are. This was the beginning of real science.

Science is the best and only way to understand how the world works, but there is no simple way of describing the scientific method. For any set of observations there is only one correct explanation. There are many types of scientists, from theory-makers to experimenters to close observers. The quality they share is the need to find an explanation that fits with the evidence and does not contradict itself or other accepted scientific ideas. The idea must be presented to the scientific community in the form of a paper to published in a scientific journal that will undergo peer review. This is fundamental to the scientific process and should be taught.

Science is a communal activity, unlike the arts, and ultimately the individual scientist is irrelevant, for if X does not make the discovery, Q will. Great scientists just speed things up. It is also the cleverest scientists who are the luckiest. The fundamental difference from the arts should be emphasised.

It is also important that students should recognise the difference between science and technology, between understanding and making things. Reliable scientific knowledge has no ethical content, it is the way the world is. But technology can clearly affect our lives, and science plays an important role in this, although this is quite recent - the Industrial Revolution was not based on science but on technology.

I am disappointed so little is taught about embryonic development - my subject - as it is fundamental to genetics and evolution and all the discussions about cloning and stem cells. Finally, I hope every student learns that anecdote will not do, and that randomised clinical trials of medical treatments are essential.

Lewis Wolpert is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College, London

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