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Is Australian science education on the wrong track?

July 12, 2012

There’s a bit of argument at the moment about the nature of science as presented in the draft Australian curriculum for senior sciences. Professor John Rice, executive director of the Australian Council of Deans of Science, is very critical. In an interview on ABC radio, he makes these points:

They make out that scientific knowledge arises as a consensus amongst scientists and in fact in some formulations of that, it goes so far as to make people think that it’s possibly simply the fantasies of a bunch of scientists.
And it’s certainly not that.

What people need to look at is the way in which scientists dispute with each other and what it is that they’re arguing about. They go by empirical evidence, and if there’s any going to be any debates or any discussions, it’s simply about the quality of that empirical evidence and the sorts of inferences that you can draw from it.

Here’s the part of the senior secondary curriculum documents I think he’s referring to. It’s the same statement for all four subjects – Biology, Chemistry, Earth and Environmental Science and Physics:

Science as a Human Endeavour
Through science, humans seek to improve their understanding and explanations of, and ability to predict phenomena in, the natural world. Since science involves the construction of explanations based on evidence, science concepts, models and theories can be changed as new evidence becomes available, often through the application of new technologies. Science influences society by posing, and responding to, social and ethical questions, and scientific research is itself influenced by the needs and priorities of society.
This strand highlights the development of science as a unique way of knowing and doing, the communication of science and the role of science in decision making and problem solving. In particular, this strand develops both students’ understanding of science as a community of practice and their appreciation that science knowledge is generated from consensus within a group of scientists and is therefore dynamic and involves critique and uncertainty. It acknowledges that in making decisions about science practices and applications, ethical and social implications must be taken into account.

My feeling is that this is a storm in a teacup. The curriculum statement could certainly be improved. He’s right for instance, about the “generated within a group of scientists” statement, and the climate deniers like Jo Nova are already jumping on that one. But I reckon the statement makes it quite clear that science is evidence-based. When you look at it in its entirety, it’s not too bad. I’m not aware that ACDS has come up with a better one.

Perhaps they should check out ScienceOrNot’s Hallmarks of science!

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