The aims of scientific education in the coming decades - Victor Host
Since the Second World War, our technical, biological and social environment has changed considerably; man has taken a prodigious step forward in his knowledge and in his mastery of nature. This achievement is due to a great extent to the development of basic and applied research, which in some countries takes up over two per cent of the gross domestic product. A knowledge-based social system has become an essential power factor, even more so than the possession of raw materials and energy sources. It is not easy to distinguish between the two types of research, since nowadays a large part of basic research stems from practical problems, particularly of a military kind. Conversely, many discoveries of the basic sciences are immediately used in technical applications (e.g. lasers). Only scientific research, that is, the study of deterministic relations between objects, independent of human undertakings, will be considered here.
In many cases, change has taken the form of a considerable improvement in material well-being, as symbolized by the motor car, as well as better health, the eradication of certain diseases, longer life expectancy, and declining hunger despite an increase in the population. On the other hand, the all-out drive for production stimulated only by the desire for profit or power has brought about an uneven distribution of wealth, the rapid depletion of natural resources in terms of raw materials and energy, increasingly widespread pollution, the threat of nuclear war, the greenhouse effect and other climatic changes, so that the very survival of the human species is at risk.
This places research before two requirements: on the one hand, it has to support the development effort, because a large part of the world’s population still expects it. The needs of a rapidly growing world population have to be met and the developed countries are evolving new qualitative needs to replace the accumulation of unnecessary processes. On the other hand, research must provide a critical analysis of decision-makers’ plans for changes in life-styles, and devise instruments which can predict the long-term effects of man’s impact on nature and on himself, without being influenced by reactionary and apocalyptic theories.
In addition to these two functions, there are two others which have appeared as a result of the rapid transformation of our environment, especially following the development of communication techniques: how to make democracy more attractive at a time when technical advances are strengthening the power of hierarchies and dispersing human activity in networks and computer hypertext without any sense of responsible awareness; and how to achieve permeability between cultures, when, despite the loss of tradition and the apparent media-induced trend towards greater uniformity, there is instead an exacerbation of violence fostered by ideologies which seek justification in the culture of individual social groups?
Scientific culture and the mastery of nature
In the last fifty years, the quantitative growth of scientific research has brought about profound changes in its organization, its procedures and its output. At the beginning of the century, the laboratory was a workshop where a creative, scrupulous craftsman handled his few instruments with the help of a handful of disciples. His relations with the scientific community were almost personal; his bibliographic searches were direct and limited, and the accounts of his research appeared in a few specialized journals, giving rise sometimes to lively discussions, but leading, through successive approximations, to knowledge recognized as a step closer to the truth. Now, sociologists of scientific activity (such as Bruno Latour) describe the laboratory on the contrary as a kind of factory, where machines have taken over all the repetitive tasks of manipulation and data processing and work is carried out by complex, often hierarchical teams of researchers.
Documentary research has become automated and concentrates on recent data, ignoring the slow maturing of ideas which prepares the change of paradigms. Whence a faster output of knowledge and fierce competition between laboratories to be first with a discovery. The time saved on practical work is partly wasted on the hunt for budgets and on administrative tasks.
The knowledge produced has to be constantly reshaped because it is so quickly refuted; it is often presented in the form of models, which serve as the basis for many developments, but the experimental meaning of which remains a mystery to the non-initiated. Some sociologists even reduce scientific work to a form of social activity like any other, leading to the output of statements arising from a social consensus founded on immediate utility, unconnected with nature or reality.
The contrast between these two descriptions is such that they hardly appear to apply to the same discipline. In fact, they could be said to be caricatures of two different aspects of one and the same reality. The image of the craftsman scientist and the naive hagiography which goes with it give a schematic representation of the epistemological aspects of scientific activity, from the definition of the scientific problem to the work of refutation which restricts the concept. The factory-laboratory, on the other hand, conveys the complexity of instrumental and intellectual techniques which embody the experimental approach. In the eyes of the novice, the object and the meaning of the process reside precisely in the construction of instruments, the examination of trajectories, the analysis of graphs, the processing of number sequences and the distribution of tasks.
Progressive and therefore sufficiently early scientific training is needed if scientific practices are to be used and understood in their present social setting on the basis of elementary or simplified situations, such as work in teaching laboratories, the analysis of documents on the history of science, or participation in local research activities.
The problem of recruiting qualified researchers, which was acute in the United States after the Second World War, has not disappeared completely. The disaffection on the part of many students, especially young girls, for scientific studies is due to many reasons. Some are related to the objectives of scientific research, such as their pursuit of means of destruction, or the excessive tendency to concentrate on reductionist activities. Others are related to the methods used to teach science in schools; owing to an excessively strict approach, material is presented with mathematical tools which are not fully mastered by the students, while the updating of curricula gives rise to endless changes. Not enough demands are made on the students’ creativity and only the barest hint is given of the connection with the problems of everyday life.
A laboratory’s performance depends not only on the quality of its researchers, but also on its team spirit. Technicians are responsible for building and maintaining installations, and for looking after their cultures and breeds in very strict conditions, and they sometimes detect significant clues which can further their research. On the other hand, months of work can be lost because a file is badly kept or collections poorly preserved. An abstract, elitist type of scientific education is not enough to allow research to develop properly. It needs a much broader public equipped with scientific and technical training, which can provide the sort of environment where research problems can mature on the basis of views exchanged on practical problems. For example, the world of animal farming in England in the eighteenth century prepared people’s minds to face the question of evolution. The growth of research in developing countries will depend on a successful interaction between research training and a much broader scientific literacy founded on a converging approach to the same problems.
To gain credibility, many human activities try to appear scientific. Most of the time, they involve only misleading advertising or ideological statements which are easy to debunk. It may happen, however, that a scientific claim is made in good faith to dress up theories claiming to be based on experience, such as astrology or many doctrines in the medical field, like homeopathy. For these theories, analogy constitutes a sufficient criterion of truth; for instance, a correspondence with the movements of stars, or cures of like by like. The theory does not go any further than formulating hypotheses. It is not concerned with failures, as indicated by the saying: ‘the exception confirms the rule’, whereas a fundamental aspect of a scientific proposition is that it must be based on the refutation of a statement (Popper’s falsification) before the concept’s range of validity can be determined or it can be reformulated.
Scientific activities and integrating man in nature
A protective approach to nature stems, in the first place, from an awareness of the danger which the frantic exploitation of natural resources and the accelerating transformation of their living environment represent for human beings. The photographs taken of the earth from artificial satellites have contributed to the rapid change in the way we see our planet: instead of a mine of unlimited resources, it is beginning to appear more as a finite object where life is maintained through a system of fragile balances.
A protective approach to nature starts from the analysis of practical situations. This may call attention to and expose certain variables which were either unknown or voluntarily overlooked, as in the case, for instance, of a plan for reallocating land or for building a motorway, or else it may help assess the significance of individual forms of behaviour if they become generalized, as in the case of pollution or energy waste. In order to arrive at a conclusion, it is often necessary to apply traditional scientific notions in complex situations far removed from the elementary structures of school learning, a skill which is often neglected because schools are not open to the environment. At the same time, a vigilant and open approach to experience has to be developed, equally far removed from the suicidal attitude of the partisans of laissez-faire and from idyllic conservationist attitudes which ignore the prodigious transformations that have occurred in our living environment since the Stone Age. A second level approach consists in applying specific scientific concepts to the study of systems, especially ecology. This can extend the space/time perspective to the scale of the biosphere as a means of identifying matter and energy cycles and of determining man’s impact on populations or on certain climatic factors, such as the greenhouse effect. Here too, scientific debate does not lead to rigid rules, but to cautious action which will evolve in step with the broadening of knowledge and with the changes brought about by human activities.
In all the above cases, respect for nature is anthropocentric, insofar as nature is seen as serving mankind, without any significance of its own. The notion of respect for nature, however, can take on a very different meaning. Instead of exploiting nature, man can see himself as a participant, coexisting in harmony with the universe. This idyllic vision of man merging with nature, so dear to the Romantics, impressed many German naturalists at that time. It now reappears in the Gaïa project, which extends the notion of life to the whole earth and professes an animistic view of the universe.
It is also possible to give a scientific basis to the notion of respect for nature, provided that the strictly reductionist attitude to science is abandoned and prospection is admitted as part of the scientific process. In this sense, man should define himself not as an object bounded by his own body but rather as a node in a network of short or long relations which extend indefinitely though space and time.
Any living being is much richer and more complex than we imagine at present. Instead of pouncing on it to reduce it to a state of preparations and extracts, according to the dictates of science, it should first be contemplated through the eyes of the artist, taking pleasure in seeing it live, in observing it with curiosity and surprise, even though we know that it is destined to be eaten or destroyed. This is not just a simple affective fixation alternating with sadistic treatment of living beings, but more a kind of rational attitude on the part of the artist-scientist which is often a prelude to discovery. For the same reasons, it is preferable to avoid as far as possible the disappearance of species, so long as the inventory of living species is not complete and not enough is known about ecological balances.
More generally speaking, the pursuit of social objectives should not stifle the enjoyable dimension of scientific education. An understanding of the laws which try to give the simplest and most coherent explanation of matter - the physicists’ dream - and a growing awareness of the history of the universe, of the earth and of life, are potent driving forces in our scientific culture. They help to bring down the barriers between disciplines and raise fundamental issues which guided the steps of early scientific research. Otherwise, we might as well just have fun watching Steven Spielberg’s film ‘Jurassic Park’.
Scientific education as an instrument of mediation between cultures
To a great extent, societies are held together by a culture, a set of representations which sanctions imposed rules and finds expression in the rights and traditions which maintain social cohesion. At the same time, this culture conceals the material causes of conflict and the biological origins of aggressiveness in order to justify wars and the subjection of other men. The rapid change of living environment and the growth of the media are at present debilitating many societies by dissolving traditional values. Culture also produces a certain superficial uniformity in societies, which does not reduce the causes of antagonism, but instead diversifies methods of destruction, with a choice of scientific wars, civil wars, terrorism, massacres, etc.
Scientific culture has been blamed for perpetuating this violence for quite opposing reasons. Some accuse it of trying to take the place of religions, which are deemed to be mere sources of fanaticism; it would propose instead a rational basis for morality by posing as the only source of certainties common to all men.
But ‘scientism’ has failed, if one is to judge by its decline in recent decades. Whenever it has been systematically imposed, it has completely distorted scientific thought, as clearly illustrated by the report on the Lysenko affair or the school biology textbook decreed by the Nazi rulers.
Others accuse scientific thought of engendering destructive scepticism on account of its fundamental postulate, namely that truth is not expressed in the form of changeless statements, but in successive approximations, which continue indefinitely. This postulate applies only within the field of scientific activities. Its limitations are not perceived by researchers, whose thoughts are concentrated on mastering their specialty and identifying the powers they gain thereby. The vacuum resulting from the lack of any thought regarding the meaning of their activity drives some minds aggressively to seek integration.
In fact, scientific training can contribute greatly towards open communication between cultures, provided that it takes the latter’s messages and values seriously. It can ease the transition from the fragile stage of tolerated tolerance and passive peaceful coexistence to the discovery of convergent tendencies and the appreciation of differences. Scientific culture gives shape to activities and methods which should be part of any human experience, such as the importance given to a creative attitude regulated by social confrontation, or the importance given to listening to other people, or the readiness to refashion one’s own ideas. These attitudes will not necessarily be transferred into the area of ethical values and conflicts, but they do provide some kind of reference and safety framework and facilitate the development of those who recognize the need for such requirements. Science also provides us with objective knowledge concerning man, society and nature. It gives us a more objective image of the origins and evolution of man and nature, and strip away social representations from outdated props. In some fields, such as human reproduction, science does not impose any specific solution, but it helps to explain the probable consequences of man’s intervention. It also plays a great role in exposing the racist hysteria which often lurks insidiously in cultures until it breaks forth in periods of crisis. Efforts to rationalize social representations can bring to light convergences between systems which are in appearance impermeable.
Scientific education as an aid to democracy
For over a century, many educational reformers have tried to supplement literacy with scientific initiation of the future citizen as a way to ensure the proper functioning of democratic institutions and to give a scientific tone to the hygienic practices imposed. For instance, Jules Ferry in France advocated early scientific education in order to shield the future citizen from the influence of the notables. In a democracy, decisions have to be taken after a public debate, which is open to all and free of domination, whether explicit or concealed by the media. This is the method of direct democracy, which still survives in the palaver, where the master of ceremonies gives the floor to each member of the group and, in successive rounds, gradually achieves unanimity through negotiation.
In fact, this ideal has become increasingly difficult to achieve owing to the growing complexity of the technical society, both from the point of view of its material facilities and from that of its hierarchical organization resting on a scale of abilities. Those who hold power control all the factors needed for decisions: information and procedures for processing it, scientific knowledge and methods of calculation to give it practical effect, and control of the means of communication and possibly the means of conditioning it. They must exercise these powers through the experts who work for them. The dialogue between the expert and the base operator is distorted by the hierarchy of skills. The expert masters all the above-mentioned skills and implements them at the highest level. His mode of expression is confusingly complex in the vocabulary and especially the type of reasoning he uses, which calls on calculation procedures based on models and probability. And yet, however strict he may be within his own field of specialization, the expert is often wrong, because he may completely overlook variables which either lie outside his own discipline or are not quantifiable.
The operator, on the other hand, who may detect unnoticed clues because he is in touch with practical situations, either may not be listened to or may not be able to take advantage of his findings because he cannot master some of the aspects of experimental thought; he tends to reason by analogy based on a simple comparison of general situations, and to interpret probability reasoning as a lack of knowledge. The discussion then often appears as an attempt at conditioning and the operator remains most of the time excluded from the decision-making process.
The shortcomings of traditional scientific training, already referred to above, partly account for this situation, insofar as the late, elitist character of such education is due to the strictness of the mathematical approach. Vulgarizations for the public at large are not considered to be scientific. By distinguishing between steps of scientific ability, it becomes easier to give scientific education a progressive character. The highest level - research - is identified as the mastery of all facets of experimental method within a finite field, in other words the ability to formulate problems starting from the present state of science, to go beyond traditional procedures and to invent whatever instrumental practices are required to solve the problem. This mastery of techniques is restricted to the particular discipline and creates a confined area of restricted rationality.
The intermediate step consists in the ability to reinvest knowledge once acquired, by being able to identify the situations where it applies, by mastering cognitive or instrumental techniques to implement it, and by being ready to follow the development of knowledge in the particular discipline concerned, which is often broader than that of the researcher.
The lowest step is that of honest vulgarization. It does not require mastery of experimental techniques or the instrumental practices of the discipline. Competence is identified as the ability to translate the same statement into different languages and to recognize analogies, and by the predominance of iconic thought over symbolic thought. These characteristics reflect the mode of presentation most often used by the media. Moreover, owing to its broad range, it provides a means of integrating the discontinuous, isolated areas of rationality of the other two steps and facilitates closer contact between parts of knowledge from different disciplines. The progression of scientific training is not a matter of successive access to the three steps, but more of their relative importance and their progressive complexity.
Introducing early scientific education implies taking into account the level of cognitive development of the students. Whence the need to postulate different presentations of the same concept, such as reproduction or molecules. Far from being a better-than-nothing solution, this advance through successive levels of formulation can meet a positive need, insofar as it provides a means of determining the best formulation for any particular social practice; the operational definition of breathing will not be the same for a sportsman, a fish breeder or a biochemist. Moreover, it would seem that scientific activity by the young child encourages his cognitive development and is conducive to the functional learning of writing and mathematics.
The role of scientific education as an instrument of communication is particularly important in education for health, for instance for the effectiveness of the dialogue between the patient and his doctor, which differentiates human medicine from veterinary practice. The objective, precise information provided by the patient will partly determine the accuracy of the diagnosis and the type of treatment administered. Modern medicine requires a critical and positive awareness on the part of the patient, who is faced with the diversity of specialists and sometimes with automated practices, and who is sometimes the only one able to make sense out of diverging data and contradictory propositions.
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