Reflections on an Undergraduate Science Education: Part One

About three years ago I stepped off a plane, eager to begin my undergraduate career after spending ten years in a country I readily disliked. I had swapped grey, unfriendly skies for one which always seemed to have a cheery blue (except in winter, although the rain at least stopped at some point which is more than I can say for dull England), and I was happier for it. Like many people, I entered University intending to do my chosen majors which were later swapped for ones that I found were more agreeable. Apart from that, after my first year I never saw those people who choose a different stream in the academic setting.

In my entire three years spent learning about my field of science, I never once learnt about its philosophy. I never even knew it had a philosophy until I read Carl Sagan’s ‘Demon Haunted World’, which I had picked up from the library. Do not misunderstand, I am all for self-learning and discovery; I really absorbed science as an undergraduate, and got far more from it than I ever did at school. But still, there is a lack of continuity between the disparate streams available to an undergraduate; the scientific method is the same to an astrophysicist as it is to a biologist, even though they may learn very different things. That is the unifying aspect to science, the only criteria which separates science to, say, literature. And yet how can we use this method without knowing anything about where it came from and what underpins it?

Karl Popper, one of the founders of the philosophy of science, once likened hypotheses as being laid upon sinking mud in his ‘The Scientific Method’, with the premise being that a scientific hypothesis should be falsifiable. The distinct image here is that science rests upon hypotheses, which in turn rest upon other hypotheses; the ones that fail sink to the bottom whilst others are built on top. I think that is a neat little image of the self-correcting machinery and ‘memory’ intrinsic to science. Yet there may be those graduating who are completely oblivious to these traits, and I think that is a problem, not only because it distances one from others studying in completely different fields, but also because the lack of context can alienate one from science itself and make it seem as if all it consists of is a jumble of information to be learned for exams.

I propose, in order to remedy the situation, that undergraduates should have to take a course on the philosophy of science as part of their degree, or if that is not feasible there should at least be some seminars and workshops running throughout the year. I understand that extra courses can be very stressful and lead to hateful loathing of the said compulsory course; that is why I think it is a good idea that the course should be assignment based, with opportunities for discussion and self-reflection, as exams have a tendency to force one to only learn for the exam.

At the end of the day, we want graduates who have a good grounding in their fields, with the additional confidence of one who has had the experience of critically engaging with the fundamental tenants of science. After all, if those training in science are not being engaged in its foundations, then what can we expect of anyone else?

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