«Scientific Myth-Conceptions DOUGLAS ALLCHIN Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science and Program in History of Science and Technology, ...»
Mix celebration with critique. Scrutinize retrospective science-made. Revive science-inthe-making. Explain error without excusing it. And above all respect historical context (see Case 5). (Note that these maxims focus on the rhetoric of science stories rather than on the “nature of science” directly.) For those who like mnemonic devices, one may express the “SOURCE” of the problem and the “SOURCE” of the solution as summarized in Figure 2. Thus, while we may not ever eradicate mythic narratives about science, one might nevertheless be able to neutralize them. Analytical tools empower teachers to recognize myths and regulate their effect.
Figure 2. Comparison of sample features characterizing mythic history and history that portrays nature of science more informatively, using the mnemonic “SOURCE.
” 348 ALLCHIN Second, teachers may beneﬁt from alternative stories of science that break the norms of the mythic structure and hence begin to expose the conventions at work. One core of the mythic architecture is a simple narrative formula for science
Viewing scientiﬁc methods as foolproof is a caricature, of course. Science proceeds by trial and error, we often hear. Everyone seems willing to acknowledge that science is fallible. This means, of course, acknowledging that scientists can err. It means acknowledging honestly that good scientists can err—even Nobel Prize winners (Darden, 1998). We cannot gently excuse the errors or explain them away, as in the myths. Nor can we cast all mistakes in science as fraud or as aberrant pathology (e.g., Dolby, 1996; Langmuir, 1989; Rousseau, 1992; Youngson, 1998). It is not just that scientists lapse from some ideal method. The “right” methods do not always yield right ideas. Sometimes
right methods ⇒ wrong conclusion
Hence, even a single case of fallibility, well articulated, may serve as a corrective to the mythic caricature. Ideally, educators should introduce some histories that chronicle how evidence at one time led reasonably to conclusions that were only later regarded as incorrect (Hagen, Allchin, & Singer, 1996, pp. 116– 127). This is how teachers can explain the limits of science without vague handwaving about skepticism or tentativeness. They must help undo the myth-conception and show how doing science can, on occasions, lead to error. We must explain the error, not excuse it (Allchin, 2001b). Ideally, educators will also show what allowed scientists later to recognize a mistake and remedy it. Narratives of error and recovery from error, I claim, convey both what justiﬁes and what limits scientiﬁc conclusions.
Myths of science are unquestionably seductive. They tempt the teacher eager to engage students. They entertain. On the surface, they seem to inform. These are reasons why the mythic forms of the history of science already haunt the classroom and our culture at large.
But they are misleading. They do not promote understanding of the process of science or nature of science. Contrary to reform claims (see Introduction), having more of them solves nothing.
We need to promote less mythic narrative frameworks instead. While less monumental, they may still be equally dramatic and humanly inspiring. While less idealized, they may still serve as modest exemplars (in concert with others) for understanding the process of science.
Other rhetorical devices may evoke responses: the excitement of opportunities, the suspense of persistent uncertainty, the reward of hard work, the surprising signiﬁcance of “trivial” events, the tension of even-handed debates, the tragic consequences of human limitations, and the aesthetic of resolving error. The new stories will celebrate insight achieved through perseverance, creative interpretation of evidence, and shrewd insights enabled by depth of experience. They will reﬂect how scientiﬁc conclusions are assembled, how they are challenged, how error can occur and how knowledge is sometimes revised. Alternative narratives of science need not reduce the greatness of scientiﬁc achievement. But, ideally, they will also portray equally both the foundations and limits of scientiﬁc authority and foster deep understanding of the nature of science. Effective histories of science will avoid engendering myth-conceptions.
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