Education and the Republic of Science

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Education and the Republic of Science



This chapter explores the potential contributions of philosophy of science, and science studies in general, to education. Both science and education are “in the knowledge business”, and many questions that arise in the context of science have close parallels in education. In terms of their social organisation, too, science and education share similar characteristics, in that both typically display a high degree of division of epistemic labour. Those engaged in science and education must be in a position to trust one another for their knowledge and expertise, and this requires the presence of rigorous intellectual standards, among them the demand for evidential support and in-principle revisability of one's claims.

What Is Philosophy of Science?

Any discussion of the relevance, and the possible contributions, of the philosophy of science to education had better start by considering the goals and ambitions of philosophy of science as a discipline. What then is philosophy of science? Providing an adequate definition is no easy task, given the generality of the constituent terms science and philosophy. With some justification, one might say that philosophy of science simply refers to the very project of inquiring into the meaning of the term science. Such an answer to the initial question, however, is at best incomplete. For one, it is not very informative, insofar as it does not tell us anything about the way philosophers of science go about trying to make sense of what “science” refers to. After all, philosophers of science are not the only ones who inquire into the way science operates. Historians and sociologists of science, too, look both at episodes in the history of science and at structural features of the way science is organised at a social level. So, while it is true, at least to a first approximation, that philosophers of science study science, its mechanisms, its theoretical principles, and the fundamental patterns that govern it, much like scientists study the world around them—as it is independently of them, that is, objectively—the project of philosophy of science must be seen as continuous with similar efforts to analyse philosophy from different disciplinary perspectives. This is why the term science studies has gained popularity in recent years as an umbrella term encompassing historical, philosophical and sociological approaches to science, thereby cutting across disciplinary (as well as institutional) divisions between philosophy of technology, history and philosophy of science, and the movement known as STS (science and technology studies, or science, technology and society).

Philosophy of science differs from empirical and historical studies of science, as well as from science itself, in that it aims at a more general level of analysis. Whereas scientists search for explanations for why we observe A rather than B, and historians of science may try to explain why a given scientific theory TA gained popularity but a competing, empirically successful theory TB fell out of favour, philosophers of science try to make sense of what it means for something to be an explanation, or a scientific theory, in the first place, irrespective of whether A or B. Many of the terms and concepts that scientists routinely use to formulate and express their findings—concepts such as theory, model, explanation and cause—attract the attention of philosophers of science, who try to make explicit what these terms and concepts mean, quite apart from their specific uses in the history of science. In finding terms such as theory or model problematic, philosophers of science do not, of course, thereby claim that scientists are necessarily confused about their own work or do not know what they are talking about. After all, it is one thing to be good at doing a certain thing and quite another to be eloquent at describing—in full theoretical detail—what it is that one is doing and how one actually does it: think of riding a bicycle. The role of skill-like knowing-how (as opposed to theoretical knowing-that), along with its tacit dimension, has long been pointed out, by philosophers and practitioners of science alike (see, e.g., Polanyi, 1958, especially Part II). In this sense, scientists may well be good at doing science without thereby being in the best position to describe what it is that they are doing.

Some scientists object strongly to becoming objects of study themselves, especially by sociologists and anthropologists of science, and this has given rise to some tension. Fuelled by controversies over funding decisions (and allegations of lack of rigour in some emerging disciplines within science studies), this led to the so-called “science wars”, which were mainly fought from within the relative comfort of American university campuses and liberal arts colleges.1 The reluctance, on the part of some scientists, to acknowledge scientific practice as itself meriting closer examination may be seen as the result of the long-cultivated conviction that science aspires to objectivity and, ideally, should be independent of the contingent conditions of its production. While most scientists and philosophers of science would concede that this is no more than an ideal, some have tended to regard any systematic inquiry into the social and historical conditions of scientific practice as undermining its validity. This, of course, is a non sequitur. In any case, many of those engaged in studying science—whether from a philosophical angle or from the perspective of history and sociology—are themselves scientists by training, and so perhaps science studies should be regarded, not unlike science education, as a form of appreciating science as a complex human project and collective achievement, even if such positive appreciation of science does not always reach the highest level of unbridled admiration for its practitioners.

The Dual Role of Philosophy of Science in Education

Philosophy of science may play two quite distinct roles in relation to education, with the duality being partly due to two meanings of the word education. First, education may be regarded as referring to the individual process of instruction and learning by which a person acquires knowledge and intellectual skills in a certain area of expertise. Second, education may be understood as referring to the institutional framework and formal setting in which this process typically takes place. Taking one's lead from this conceptual distinction, one can ask two questions: First, what place, if any, should philosophy of science occupy in the science curriculum at the level of secondary (or higher) education? Second, irrespective of whether students should be taught philosophy of science in school, what lessons does it have to offer for the organisation of education, including the organisation of teacher training? We will consider each of these questions in turn.

History and philosophy of science as part of the curriculum

The question of whether philosophy of science should itself become part of the curriculum comes in two varieties: First, should philosophy of science be taught in schools? Second, should philosophy of science be taught in teacher training? Before one can even begin to give tentative answers, it makes sense to consider the context in which questions about science education typically get asked. Every few years or so, policymakers and the media would proclaim a crisis of science education. More often than not, such proclamations coincide with economic challenges, such as a shortage of qualified professionals in a certain sector of the science and technology industries, or with the emergence—usually in another country—of a successful new industry. Thus, in 1983, a report entitled A Nation at Risk was published in the United States demanding that high-school students should receive at least three full years of science education; yet seven years later, only four out of the fifty states in the country had stipulated such a requirement in their school guidelines. In 1991, the US-based Carnegie Commission of Science, Technology, and Government warned that shortcomings in American science education posed a chronic, serious threat to the country's future (Matthews, 1997). More recently, the findings of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), led to a public outcry in several countries, notably in Germany, where it was found that students' performance across a range of subjects and skills fell far short of expectations. Matthews (1997) reported that in Australia in 1996 many top school science achievers gave “too boring” as the reason for not pursuing university science (let alone a degree in science education). Whether science education is indeed to blame in these cases is dubious; at best, the cases suggest that the public perception of science education is a somewhat volatile affair across different countries and different time frames.

The fact that science education has, at various times in the recent past, been regarded as problematic, whether explicitly or implicitly, by policymakers and the general public alike, may be due to several factors. For one thing, science subjects in school are generally regarded as “hard” by students. This may be because science curricula tend to place more emphasis on the learning of facts than do other subjects such as history and literature, which tend to emphasise interpretation and argumentation. At a more general level, science, with its ideal of objectivity and its emphasis on evidence, also demands a certain self-restraint in forming beliefs: not just any belief, however pleasant and reassuring (and, in this sense, pragmatically useful) it may be, qualifies as a potential statement of science, let alone as a piece of scientific knowledge. This austerity of scientific belief formation may lead to science being perceived by students as psychologically more demanding than other pursuits, whether intellectual, ideological or material. Finally, it seems plausible that science education in school also faces competition from outside the classroom, in particular from new technologies such as the computer and the Internet. In order to cope with such new competition, and in order to make science relevant to students' concerns and lifestyles, several countries have started projects that aim at enhancing the appeal of science, mathematics and technology subjects in school.2 Such efforts, broadly speaking, take three distinct forms:

  1. Integrating curricula across different science subjects
  2. Shifting emphasis in science curricula from theoretical (or proto-theoretical) questions towards applications of science
  3. Expanding science curricula to explicitly include topics from the history and philosophy of science as well as from science and technology studies

The third kind of approach—explicit inclusion of philosophical topics in science teaching—seems to have received the least attention. Perhaps this is understandable: given the limitations of time and the demands of already existing curricula, science teachers will find it difficult to make space for the systematic discussion of questions on the philosophy of science. If reflection on how science works is to convey a deeper understanding of the nature of science, then it must already be in a position to draw on a substantial amount of background knowledge in both science and philosophy. It may therefore be desirable to first give students a firm grounding in science, covering those theories that—on the whole, though perhaps with some alterations over the course of the history of science—have stood the test of time, at least in their proper domain of applicability, and about which there exists a far-reaching scientific consensus: well-confirmed theories with considerable explanatory power, such as Newtonian mechanics (which remains approximately true, even by the standards of Einstein's theories) or Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Demanding that students should first receive proper training in current science, however, does not mean that philosophical questions should be ignored when they arise naturally. Often, the most natural starting point for such a discussion is the historical origin of a given scientific theory, or the recognition of its limitations. More general questions relating to the nature of science may also arise gradually, for example from a contrast between science and instances of pseudo-science (e.g. astrology, Creation science). While it is nowadays widely accepted that the logical structure of a theory does not, by itself, adjudicate between science and pseudo-science, consideration of the historical and social contexts often does provide a clear indication of whether a particular theory is continuous with science or is causally isolated from scientific discourse. A prominent example of the latter is the attempt by anti-evolution activists to recast “Creation science” in the form of so-called “intelligent design theory”. As the later discovery of an internal memo of anti-evolution activists showed, intelligent design theory did not develop as an attempt to explain new scientific evidence, or resolve scientific puzzles, but as a social action plan to garner support for a broader political agenda.3

Education and the social organisation of knowledge: Lessons from the study of science

As the case of intelligent design theory makes plain, examples from the history and philosophy of science must be carefully chosen and need to be discussed in detail in order to avoid fabricating perceived scientific controversies where in fact there are none. A merely superficial deployment of the argumentative repertoire of science studies and philosophy of science would, at best, be uninformative for students and, at worst, leave them with a confused, perhaps even cynical, picture of science as a collective human project. It is clear that using philosophy of science successfully in the classroom requires sophisticated didactic skills that are quite different from the ones that have traditionally been taught in more subject-centred teacher training. This suggests that, while more philosophical content in the classroom may be desirable for independent reasons, philosophy of science really is most relevant in the context of teacher training. This suggestion is not new: thirty-five years ago, the philosopher Israel Scheffler argued that philosophy of science should be an essential part of the preparation of science teachers.4 Those who teach a particular discipline should receive training in the philosophy of that discipline (e.g. the biology teacher should have general knowledge of the philosophy of biology). Scheffler (1973) outlines four main efforts through which the philosophy of a discipline might contribute to education:

(1) the analytic description of forms of thought represented by teaching subjects; (2) the evaluation and criticism of such forms of thought; (3) the analysis of specific material so as to systematize and exhibit them as exemplifications of forms of thought; and (4) the interpretation of particular exemplifications in terms accessible to the novice (p. 40).

On this account, teachers should be made familiar with philosophy of science, not because it should necessarily be taught in school but because knowledge of the major problems and debates in philosophy of science will indirectly inform teaching of “traditional” subjects. An understanding of, and familiarity with, philosophical problems concerning the relation between evidence and scientific theories, the structure of scientific explanations, the criteria of empirical confirmation, or the contrast between realism and instrumentalism not only provides additional intellectual context for science subjects, it may also inform the teacher's own technique of teaching. After all, science and teaching are both “in the knowledge business”, as it were, and hence many of the epistemological problems in relation to scientific knowledge—for example, the question of what makes for a good explanation—have close parallels in the case of education. Furthermore, at the level of social organisation, science and education are both characterised by a high degree of division of epistemic labour. The abstract view, according to which instruction in school consists in the teacher imparting knowledge to the student, easily obscures the fact that “the teacher” is rarely one and the same figure throughout a student's education—or even throughout a typical school day, for that matter. In much the same way that scientists must be able to rely on their colleagues' knowledge and expertise for the transcripts of their data, for their published results or for experimental samples, teachers must be able to rely on the integrity of their colleagues who taught the previous classes. There are, of course, important differences: whereas scientists typically share their results in a highly formalised fashion, by publishing papers, engaging in peer review and exchanging structured information, teachers deal with a less tangible but ultimately more important resource—the minds of their students. The fact, however, that teaching not only makes epistemic demands, but also entails a moral responsibility, means that the standards of rigour and professionalism in education should be at least as high as those in science.

Social Epistemology and the “Republic of Science”

Science and education share a commitment to robust intellectual standards, in terms of both the rigour of their methods and the epistemic virtues displayed by their practitioners, such as intellectual honesty and openness. As the philosopher of science Michael Ruse puts it, “Good science—like good philosophy and good religion—presupposes an attitude that one might describe as professional integrity” (1982, p. 74). What are the elements of such an attitude of professional integrity? While it may be impossible to reduce such a complex notion to a finite list of component elements, some of its underlying principles might be summarised as follows:

  1. Transparency and disclosure of interests
  2. The pursuit of pluralism, that is, serious consideration of alternative views and explanations that are underwritten by evidence and rational argument
  3. An active attempt to uphold and maintain the distinction between matters of fact and matters of value

Each of these principles aims at avoiding one or another of the typical sources of error and misjudgment. Thus, the first principle is motivated by the realisation that self-interest may give rise to epistemic biases, even when there is no intention to mislead. The third principle may be thought of as a safeguard against value dogmatism. While nobody—or at least nobody in their right mind—could wish for education to be value-free, prescriptive matters of value (what it is that we ought to do) must be kept apart from descriptive matters of fact (what we ought to believe to be the case) if the possibility of rational persuasion is to have any meaningful basis. Closely related is the second desideratum, tentatively dubbed “the pursuit of pluralism”. Social epistemologists have pointed out for some time that the presence of a plurality of views and competing interpretations often has a beneficial effect, insofar as it is a stimulus for further inquiry and debate, in science as much as in education. However, disagreement must be underwritten by evidence and rational argument, lest it should degenerate into mere contrarianism. Recognising the significance of evidentiary relations is especially important in the case of education, where one goal is to inculcate rigorous standards of rational argumentation and good reasoning in the student. Not only does the demand for evidentiary support influence the choice of what ought to be taught, but also how it ought to be taught. For, as Kenneth Strike (1994) points out, “Propositions that are objective evidence for some claim must be subjectively seen as evidence by the student…. The suggestion that evidence is relative to the student's current concepts indicates a need on the part of the teacher to know what the student's current concepts are” (p. 106). Alvin Goldman (1997) has generalised this suggestion into a universal rule of good argumentation when he proposes that a “speaker addressing a particular audience should restrict her premises to statements that the audience is (or would be) justified in believing, and should restrict herself to a support relationship between premises and conclusion that the audience is capable of recognizing or appreciating” (p. 448). Within the limits set by evidence and rational argument, however, pluralism is something to be actively pursued, not least in recognition of the intrinsic value of intellectual inquiry. This point is perhaps most evident in the case of science, where a plurality of projects and views arises naturally, as Michael Polanyi (1969) has brought out in great clarity:

So long as each scientist keeps making the best contribution of which he is capable, and on which no one could improve (except by abandoning the problem of his own choice and thus causing an overall loss to the advancement of science), we may affirm that the pursuit of science by independent self-coordinated initiatives assures the most efficient possible organisation of scientific progress (p. 51).

The spirit of pluralism that follows from the recognition of the intrinsic worth of self-determined intellectual inquiry is also evident from Polanyi's rejection of the idea of subordinating science to predetermined social, political or ideological goals—what he calls “any deliberate total renewal of society” (ibid., p. 71)—“Any attempt at guiding scientific research towards a purpose other than its own is an attempt to deflect it from the advancement of science” (p. 59). Yet, Polanyi's pluralism is not unconditional: not just anyone can purport to contribute to the “republic of science”, membership of which is the result of “a cultural apprenticeship of novices and students to a community dedicated to cultivating and transmitting a tradition according to particular standards and in light of recognized values” (Jacobs, 2000, p. 312). Implicit in the notion of scientific learning as an apprenticeship is the acknowledgment that “in the great majority of cases our trust is placed in the authority of comparatively few people of widely acknowledged standing” (Polanyi, 1958, p. 208). In this respect, the budding scientist seems to be in largely the same position as the student in school. There is, however, an important difference: whereas the student relies on the individual teacher's authority as a source of knowledge,

the functions of scientific authority go far beyond a mere confirmation of facts asserted by science. For one thing, there are no mere facts in science. A scientific fact is one that has been accepted as such by scientific opinion, both on the grounds of the evidence in favour of it and because it appears sufficiently plausible in view of the current scientific conception of the nature of things (Polanyi, 1969, p. 65).

Such scepticism about the existence of bare, uninterpreted scientific facts, however, comes with several important caveats, namely:

  1. that dissent in science must itself be based on evidence (i.e. not based on prejudice)
  2. that it must be plausible in light of the broad scientific conception of the nature of things (i.e. conforming to the ontologies of our best-established scientific theories)
  3. that it must itself be open to further criticism, revision and refinement (i.e. not holding anything fixed as dogma)

Their differences notwithstanding, science and education can thus be seen to be subject to broadly the same demands of intellectual rigour, evidential support and in-principle revisability.


1 For a survey, see Parsons (2003).

2 For a review, see Olson et al. (1999).

3 For a thoughtful review, see Pennock (2002); for a detailed study, see Forrest and Gross (2004).

4 For a review of developments following Scheffler's suggestion, see Matthews (1997).


Forrest, B., & Gross, P. R. (2004). Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. New York: Oxford University Press.

Goldman, A. I. (1997). Education and social epistemology. In A. O. Rorty (Ed.), Philosophers on Education: New Historical Perspectives (pp. 439–451). London: Routledge.

Jacobs, S. (2000). Michael Polanyi on the education and knowledge of scientists. Science and Education, 9(3), 309–320.

Matthews, M. R. (1997). Scheffler revisited on the role of history and philosophy of science in science teacher education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 16(1–2), 159–173.

Olson, J., James, E., & Lang, M. (1999). Changing the subject: The challenge of innovation to teacher professionalism in OECD countries. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 31(1), 69–82.

Parsons, K. (Ed.) (2003). The Science Wars: Debating Science and Technology. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Pennock, R. (2002). Should creationism be taught in the public schools? Science and Education, 11(2), 111–133.

Polanyi, M. (1958). Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Polanyi, M. (1969). The republic of science: Its political and economic theory. In M. Grene (Ed.), Knowing and Being: Essays by Michael Polanyi (pp. 49–71). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Article originally published 1962 in Minerva, 1, 54–73.)

Ruse, M. (1982). Creation-science is not science. Science, Technology, and Human Values, 7(40), 72–78.

Scheffler, I. (1973). Reason and Teaching. London: Routledge.

Strike, K. (1994). The authority of ideas and the students' right to autonomy. In P. J. Markie (Ed.), A Professor's Duties: Ethical Issues in College Teaching (pp. 101–112). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Further Reading

Haack, S. (2003). Defending Science—Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Kitcher, P. (2003). Science, Truth, and Democracy. Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Science. New York: Oxford University Press.

Polanyi, M. (1958). Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Roth, W.-M., & Barton, A. C. (2004). Rethinking Scientific Literacy. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

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Education and the Republic of Science

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Education and the Republic of Science