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Educating The Public About Science

Ian A. Paul, Ph.D. iapaul at fiona.umsmed.edu
Thu Jun 1 12:10:55 EST 1995


Matt Jones has raised what I believe to be the critical issue regarding 
educating the public about science.  That is that there is a profound 
difference between education about the process and ultimate goals of 
science and explaining the specific details of a given subfield of 
research.  The latter can, indeed, be difficult when dealing with a 
non-scientist (or for that matter, a colleague not engaged in that 
particular area of research).  However, the process and ultimate goals 
are generally accessible, even at an elementary school level.

In another post, Lisa Harris pointed out that part of the problem stems 
from a confusion over the nature of scientific information.  That is, 
while the data derived from a properly conceived and executed experiment 
are often resolvable to true/false statements, the interpretation of 
these data within a hypothesis is considerably more speculative.  
Textbooks, as we are all painfully aware, usually present data within 
hypotheses' as "proving" the hypothesis, rather than the more accurate 
indication that a given experiment "supports" the hypothesis.  Thus, as 
Lisa notes, the pre-graduate presentation of science is usually one which 
is static rather than dynamic.  Thus, it is unsurprising that the public 
perception of science is one of a field of study in which most of the 
big questions are already conclusively answered, leaving little at 
present but a group of pedants arguing over how many angels can dance on 
the head of a pin.

Finally, I thank Matt Jones for asking David Longley for the definition 
of "truth functional".  Having seen David's explanation, I would have to 
take issue with that definition of science since it implies that science 
as a field involves the search for ultimate truths.  While it may be true 
that that is the loftiest goal of scientific research (and I would even 
take issue with that) it is also the goal of many fields of scholarly 
work (e.g. theology).  Thus, it is not the exclusive domain of science.  
Moreover, as I describe above, it is probably not even an accurate 
description of science since even if the data are unequivocal, the 
interpretation of that data is quite subjective.  The fact that a body of 
my peers might share my subjective evaluation of a data set does not 
diminish its fundamental subjectivity.  As a simply example, consider the 
Copernican revolution in astronomy.  Both Ptolemy (and his followers) 
worked with the same data set at Copernicus.  The revolution *and* the 
advance in scientific understanding lay not in the data but in its 
interpretation.  Thus, it is not even philosophically accurate to 
describe the process of scientific research as "truth functional".

Best to all,

Ian.

-- 
======================================================
Ian A. Paul, Ph.D.
Laboratory of Neurobehavioral Pharmacology and Immunology
Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior
Division of Neurobiology and Behavior Research
Box 127
University of Mississippi Medical Center
2500 North State Street
Jackson, MS  39216-4505
Tel.:  (601) 984-5883/5898
Fax.:  (601) 984-5884/5899
URL:  http://fiona.umsmed.edu/~iapaul/lnpi.html

"Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis 
for a system of government!  Supreme executive authority derives from 
a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!
I mean, if I went around saying I was an emporor because some moistened 
bit had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away...."

                             - Dennis ("I'm 37, I'm not old!")
                               Monty Python and the Holy Grail





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