We need to improve K–12 STEM education. But improving STEM education is not simply a matter of adding lesson plans on microbiology and immunology, nor emphasizing hands-on laboratory work. What we need to do is to teach students about the fundamental nature of scientific practice—its strengths and limitations—and how science can both affect and be affected by society. In other words, we need to introduce students to the philosophy of science.
The concept of teaching philosophy in high school might seem strange. Philosophy often gets a bad reputation, conjuring up images of dense, impenetrable writing and of academics who care more about winning verbal disputes than discussing tangible issues. Admittedly, academic philosophy can often be esoteric and inaccessible, and the field has historically been guilty of vastly underrepresenting female and minority perspectives. But over the past several years, a wave of enthusiasm has emerged to expand whose voice is heard and to engage the broader public in philosophical discourse.
Little attention has been given, however, to expanding access to philosophy of science education. Philosophy of science examines how the scientific process works, when and why we should accept new scientific findings, and how scientific knowledge progresses over time. The discipline also explores the role of different stakeholders in science, how biases and values can influence the process, and how ethical considerations figure into research. These issues—not how to balance chemical equations or how to calculate the trajectory of a projectile—are what Americans are asked to grapple with every day as we are confronted with news on the pandemic. And recent studies suggest that knowledge about the nature of science may improve trust and acceptance of its findings.Nicholas Friedman and Stephen Esser, “Opinion: Teach Philosophy of Science in High School” at The Scientist (January 17, 2022)
It’s too bad if the concept seems “strange” to some. Philosophy of science is to science what civics is to politics. It helps people make sense of what we are doing and why: What is science as a way of knowing? What can it tell us and not tell us? The alternative is that science becomes a Magic Answer Machine with no clear understanding of what the answers really mean.