The subtle flaws of science education

In his landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn describes how the majority of scientific work is actually focused on solving scientific puzzles. That’s what Kuhn calls normal science, and scientists are perfectly trained for and highly efficient in pursuing this endeavour.

But there are times when normal science reaches its limits, when anomalies are observed that cannot be explained within the current scientific paradigm, when the stable reference frame of normal science is disrupted, when science itself goes through a period of crisis to emerge transformed to a new paradigm. As Kuhn points out, these revolutions are invisible even to most scientists. Let’s take a look at the reasons for this blind spot and what its wider impact is.

As scientific revolutions are extremely rare, most scientists don’t experience any such crisis themselves. Rather, they begin, pursue, and end their careers within one paradigm. Hence their view of science is shaped by the practices of normal science within that paradigm. And this perspective perfectly reflects the way science is portrayed in the textbooks that are used to train and educate scientists. At first glance, that is exactly what one would hope for: education that prepares for the professional experience; reality that meets expectations. This is certainly the root cause for the efficiency of normal science. But this undoubted benefit has collateral effects I’d like to draw your attention to.

The trouble with science textbooks

Let’s see what Thomas Kuhn can tell us. Textbooks are written within a given paradigm, promoting its application. Hence they are focused on normal science and on the puzzle-solving that is characteristic for it. This is the part of science that accumulates knowledge, i.e., solved puzzles, over time. And this accumulation allows for a very straightforward story line, presenting how the knowledge available to mankind increased over centuries in an almost linear fashion.

However, paradigm shifts, i.e., crises and revolutions in science, have fundamentally different characteristics: they do not accumulate knowledge; on the contrary, knowledge is lost when ducks turn rabbits. And these periods of crisis are highly non-linear in their development and resolution. Hence normal science and scientific revolutions cannot be presented correctly in the same approach to story telling. Science textbooks “overcome” that challenge by simplifying their depiction of scientific revolutions. They don’t dive into the confusion of competing paradigms and they spare the readers the terrifying thought that knowledge can be lost through science. They usually don’t even mention the concept of paradigms.

Instead, science textbooks tackle scientific revolution with a simplified story line that is a lot easier to tell, easier to understand, and easier to remember than a factually correct depiction of the history and genesis of knowledge. In textbooks, puzzle-solving  and the accumulation of knowledge are the core, normal science rules. In the rare case that a revolution is touched upon, it is presented (I’ll simplify as much as these stories are simplified) through the case of the single genius working in solitude towards the one Eureka moment will certainly bring the solution. Obviously, these story lines is incomplete as much as incorrect. Rather than being historically correct, they are easy to absorb.

Why worry about it? Who is actually interested in a correct accord of the history of science, other than maybe historians and philosophers of science? Good question: Who cares? Scientists maybe?

Scientists are trained and educated to pursue normal scientist, and science textbooks are a tool that is optimised for exactly that purpose. But because of that single point optimisation of their education, scientists encounter crisis and revolution entirely unprepared. They don’t have the concepts to understand what they are going through, they even lack the vocabulary to articulate that experience. All they observe is that their available tools fail in the situation they are in. As a result, practitioners of normal science face major difficulties in the face of revolution, unintentionally protracting the period of crisis, thus hindering progress.

Now you might argue that such delays (let’s remember that they occur only rarely) are the price to pay for the efficiency of normal science. While that is a true statement, I would (mildly) object that scientific revolutions have such far reaching impact that we should invest some effort to understand them as a concept and to articulate and handle them in times of crisis. And there’s not a lot we’d need to change: I’d propose that all graduate students should be exposed to the history and philosophy of science so that they can look behind the scenes of simplified story lines and get an idea for what’s really under the hood.

So far I’ve talked about science textbooks, and we might conclude here, because they are only relevant for scientist, aren’t they? But if you consider that even primary school provides some basic science education, you might agree that really everybody is somehow exposed to simplified science story lines. Even though non-scientists are not active practitioners of science themselves, their view(s) of science influence the success or failure of science in a multitude of ways.

That’s a good lead-in to the topic of literacy; more to follow in my upcoming post.

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