Talking Teaching

March 24, 2010

how good are we at teaching the nature of science?

This is a question to which I don’t really have an answer – hopefully it will provoke a bit of a discussion :-)

It arises from an on-line chat I had today with a friend & colleague who’s a secondary teacher. We’re both big on teaching about the nature of science (as you might have gathered, I like the narrative approach to this). And we’ve both followed with interest the comments thread associated with a guest post on SciBlogsNZ. The post was written by Dr Nicky Turner, of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, & it attracted an outpouring of comment centred on Gardasil, the vaccine against genital herpes that was recently added to the NZ vaccination schedule.

Much of the comment was anti- this vaccine (& to some degree other vaccines as well). At least some of it was spurred by what the commenters perceive as significant health problems suffered by their daughters as a direct result of the vaccination. (I hasten to say that I have a huge amount of sympathy for these parents & I can understand their need to find something to blame for their daughters’ ill-health.) However, some of the comments showed that those writing didn’t really have a strong grasp of the science underlying vaccines, or of things like the VAERS database & its equivalent in New Zealand.

My friend said, ‘as I read the comments from the ‘anti’ people I kept thinking they just don’t understand about how science works.  The gulf between science and Joe Public  is as huge as ever and I wonder if schools really are doing anything to change that?’

Personally I’m not sure that they are. This may change with the implementation of the new science curriculum – but only if teachers are properly resourced & supported to do so. But I may be being overly cynical about this, and I’d be really interested to hear what others have to say on the matter. So please – do feel free to chip in & tell us what you think. It would be great to get a dialogue going around teaching the nature of science in our schools!


  1. I think an element of this is “bullshit detection”.

    It’s easy as a biologist to recognise immediately that some things simply fly in the face of what is well-understood, but even without knowing this, there are signs to look for. Reliance on anecdotes, poor logic, attacking a position with presenting anything “for” the position the person holds and so on.

    Some of these things seem to stem from sources that anyone (in good mental health) would regard as unsound, but gain a sort-of veneer of creditability in being repeated, with the less bizarre elements dropped when repeated.

    One analogy I’ve used in the past is a comparison with scammers or those artful salespeople (real estate agents are one group of salespeople I have a bit of stick for…) Most of us with a little care recognise the “bullshit” and sift it out or move on. I feel sometimes as if people haven’t adjusted to detecting the new “scams”. In that sense this seems like a basic lifeskill for the “internet age”, perhaps?

    Comment by Grant Jacobs — April 7, 2010 @ 1:52 am

  2. I agree – having a ‘bullshit detector’ is highly desirable :-)
    I wonder if part of the problem is that it became fashionable, a while ago, to present science (in the media, anyway) as simply one of many ‘ways of knowing’ about the world, all of which have equal validity. Once a view like that becomes pervasive, then maybe people are less willing to look beyond the preconceptions & misconceptions?

    Comment by alison — April 8, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

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