Let’s Teach the History of Science

People who do not understand what science is tend to distrust its conclusions. What fills the vacuum is the source of many of our greatest challenges. Perhaps taking a step back and teaching the history of science will pave the way to a better understanding, and a brighter future.

Trust Me, I’m a Scientist
Daniel T. Willingham, Scientific American, May 2011, page 12

Asking science teachers to impart enough content to understand all the issues may be unrealistic, but they might be able to improve people’s appreciation for the accuracy of scientific knowledge. Through the study of the history of science, students might gain an understanding both of their own motivations for belief and of science as a method of knowing. If a student understands how a medieval worldview could have made a geocentric theory of the solar system seem correct, it is a short step to seeing similar influences in oneself.

Science history can also help students undersand why scientific knowledge grows ever more accurate. It is easy for a non-scientist to dismiss an unpleasant conclusion as controversial on the grounds that scientists constantly change their minds: “First they say chocolate is bad for us, then it’s good … they can’t decide anything.” By studying how new observations led to the revision of important theories, however, students see that science is not about immutable laws but provisional explanations that get revised when a better one comes along. They also see that scientists’ readiness to change their beliefs to align with data is a source of great strength, not weakness, and why near consensus on issues such as global warming or vaccine safety is so impressive. Science may not be the only way of organizing and understanding our experience, but for accuracy it fares better than religion, politics and art. That’s the lesson.

Perhaps if people could recognize our intellectual blindspots we could finally rid ourselves of religion, astrology, jingoism, homeopathy, conspiracy theories and other retarding and deleterious quackery.

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