So I was over in the Philosophy department at the University of Idaho trying to ask a couple of questions about the Philosophy of Science in regards to Post-modernism last Friday afternoon. Of course I should have realized that no one philosophizes on a Friday afternoon, so literally, no one was there.
Don't know if he'll respond, but apparently, I am way out of the loop as far as both Epistemology and the Philosophy of Science goes.
I happened to come across your article, “How to Justify Teaching False Science,” and was wondering if you could help me understand your position better. Your background in Philosophy is obviously much superior to mine, and I certainly have not kept up with the recent literature, but it seems to me that the thrust of your argument is in fact based on a false premise.
While I wholeheartedly agree with your conclusion (if I understand it correctly) that what should be taught K-12 should be much more concept, historical and method laden in regards to science rather than theory laden, I disagree (I think) with your emphasis. I think (and I think you do too), that science education should be more concentrated on teaching students how to think scientifically rather than what to think.
However, I think science education should be much more focused on the epistemological limitations of the scientific endeavor, which in my opinion would make the question of the truth/falsity of any scientific theory moot. Therefore, I would dispute your premise that “Newtonian mechanics is a false scientific theory.”
A scientific theory cannot strictly be “false,” because epistemologically, no scientific theory can be strictly said to be “true.” While there are many scientific facts that for all intents and purposes can be said to be true, the theories that attempt to explain them are always conditional.
In one of your footnotes you state (with qualifications) that, “I assume here (for simplicity) that these best theories—general relativity and quantum mechanics—are true theories, when they cannot both be. Maybe neither is. It does not matter much for my point. They are both at least contenders for truth.” Earlier, (pg 528) you state, “Cosmologists do not ask about what the universe was like 10 billion years ago in hopes of discovering some practical use of that knowledge in our society.” It seems to me that both these statements illustrate a fundamental misunderstanding of what the limitations and goals of the scientific enterprise are.
In the first case, the misunderstanding is in the idea that any scientific theory will be true. Because any scientific theory is based on a logically inductive method, it will never establish absolute truth: all scientific (empirical) knowledge is therefore contingent, not necessary. All scientific theories are open to Popperian falsification (by definition) and in my opinion should be viewed as tentative explanations, rather than unconditionally accurate reflections of reality.
In the second case, I disagree that the motivation of cosmologists in this instance, and historical scientists in general, is simple curiosity. I think the scientific endeavor is fundamentally pragmatic and utilitarian: it seeks knowledge that is or at least potentially will be in some way practically useful. While these applications may not always be obvious, or even arguably useful, that is the ideal. In this example, cosmologists try to determine the nature of the universe 10 billion years ago not simply because they are curious, but because what they can learn about the universe then does have practical implications now. They look at the nature of the universe in the past because that can help them test how accurate their current theories are. If their current theories match up well with the historical data, this adds strong evidence to their views on the current nature of the universe as well as their theories’ predictive power about the future of the universe.
Speaking of Newtonian mechanics specifically, I think the most persuasive reason to teach it to secondary students has more to do with the math. In all cases in physics, the math that is used to support a theory is based progressively on the math used to buttress the theory that came before. So without the math developed by Newton to describe his mechanics, the theory of Relativity couldn’t be adequately operationalized. Likewise, the math that underlies Quantum mechanics was built on the math developed in Maxwell’s equations. The math that supports (according to some) String theory is built on the math of Quantum mechanics, etc.
This progression almost makes it necessary to learn the mathematics of Newtonian mechanics to have any clear understanding of Relativity in the same way that learning the basics of addition is necessary to learn multiplication.
In regards to the idea (Bauer’s) that scientific literacy does or does not aid in helping people answer policy questions, I think the most reliable information available should be used to inform one’s opinions. But again, my understanding is that science provides only conditional descriptions of what “is.” At least ideally, this information is itself value neutral (perhaps a naïve view) and as such cannot be “good or evil.” To ask it (science) to provide “oughts” is of course to commit the naturalistic fallacy.
In conclusion, in my view, science renders information that at best models reality in a Platonic sense. We can’t truly know the nature of reality, but science can and does deliver knowledge that is at least conditionally reliable. In this sense, Newtonian mechanics is fantastically reliable within certain parameters. Reliable enough to send a person to the moon and bring them back (alive). But this knowledge is, as I’ve noted, always tentative and conditional.
With every “iteration” of science, the models reflect better and better what reality is like, but as with any ideal, a perfect reflection will never be achieved. In this sense, no theory is “true.” But with every iteration, the reflection comes closer to the ideal. This view is both pedagogically utilitarian and optimistic in that it does accurately reflect the epistemic realities of science and also illustrates that there will always be scientific work that needs to be done since the models can always be made better.
Thank you for your time, and sorry if I rambled,