April 11, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Students Need to Argue Science, Not Memorize It

A professor of science education has a radical idea: teach science through argumentation, because that’s the way scientists do it.

If you were bored in science class having to learn a bunch of facts, you might have perked up if your teacher taught it the way Jonathan Osborne recommends: argue a position from available evidence.  PhysOrg introduced its article by saying, “Teaching students how to argue based on available evidence engages them in the scientific process and provides a better idea of how science actually works.”

Earth orbits the sun. Microorganisms cause infectious disease. Plants use carbon dioxide to grow. Most of us know these scientific truths from our earliest school days. They’re accepted facts. But astronomers, microbiologists and botanists once fought for these concepts using arguments based on evidence. Science, it seems, arrives at its tenets through argument.

Science education should follow suit, says Stanford education Professor Jonathan Osborne. Teachers should help students learn to argue a position from available evidence, he says, helping them learn why we know what we know.

In short, Osborne wants students to think about evidence, not just be told conclusions.  “In science, people argue for their ideas, in terms of the evidence that they have,” he said. “There should be more opportunities to look at why some ideas are wrong, as well as what the right ideas are.

The concept of “justification” for “right” ideas is lacking in science education, Osborne believes.  His recommendations were published in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 50:3, March 2013.  The only hard part is training science teachers to change their ways.

The article led to a flurry of argumentation in the comments about what constitutes a legitimate scientific theory.  Osborne was mentioned in our 5/21/2012 entry where he promoted “collaborative discourse” in the science class.

Osborne’s ideas are good, but he doesn’t go far enough.  Indoctrination into a consensus is still possible under his model, if the concepts of “evidence” and “justification” are not unpacked.  This is another good time to remind readers of the course on Philosophy of Science offered by The Teaching Company, where you can see how difficult it is to justify even the simplest of scientific truths.  Another worthwhile course (though flawed when it discusses intelligent design) is Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It.  (Reader tip: these go on sale for 70% off from time to time).

It’s not clear from the article if Osborne understands the problems with peer review and consensus.  Does he have a Popperian view of science, or a Kuhnian view?  How about the view of Feyerabend, Cartwright, or van Fraasen? Lakatos or Polanyi?  What is even meant by science these days, when it covers everything from sociology to string theory? Students should learn not just to argue evidence, but to argue philosophy of science.  They can’t study science without knowing what it is.  Yes, normal science includes argumentation, but it can also include social pressure.  Students need to know that scientific institutions, made up of fallible people who don’t know everything, can enforce conformity within popular paradigms, which regulate what questions are important and what is meant by “evidence.”

Dead ideologies can be dangerous.  Positivism and scientism still parade through high schools, like zombies, without students realizing they’re dead.  Let them learn to beware the zombie science teachers who say, “Scientists now know….”


  • Robert Byers says:

    This guy is right. Researchers did and do argue with each other.
    so the student should not presume whats given is right.
    In fact he should be flexible in his thoughts and almost be persuaded by all sides.
    Learn to think smarter.
    This is what is needed in subjects like origins.
    Thinking kids would undermine evolutionary biology before the adults finish it off.

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