How should we teach the fact that science is messy?

Susan Howitt and Anna Wilson have just published a very interesting opinion piece in the scientific journal EMBO Reports. It’s well worth reading.

Their piece is an update of a famous talk by Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, who asked the question: “Is the scientific paper a fraud?” — which is also well worth reading.

In actual fact the EMBO Reports piece is not much of an update because, as Howitt and Wilson observe, the sanitised version of science presented in scientific papers that Medawar complained of is still what usually gets published. As a result, students rarely get an insight into how science is really done: with much mess and failure along the way.

To address this, Howitt and Wilson call for inclusion of more opportunities for students at school and university to get involved in research exercises where the outcome is uncertain and failure is possible. I heartily approve of this — it’s something I’ve thought for some time.

But the problem is implementation within the curriculum because no student likes to fail. And with UK university fees having risen so much in recent years, students are more concerned than ever to get the good grades needed to get good jobs (which in itself is something of a tragedy, but that will have to be dealt with on another day).

I am not sure what the solution is but I would be interested to explore possibilities and to hear suggestions from you. Howitt and Wilson argue that there are likely to be significant benefits:

Introducing undergraduate and high school students to a more realistic view of science and how it is done is just as important for recruiting future scientists as for producing scientifically literate citizens. 

… it (also) has implications for recruiting scientists. Much science education at both secondary and tertiary level gives students the impression that science is about learning facts. Many students are put off by this approach and the perception that there is no scope within science for discussion, creativity, and imagination. Girls and ethnic minority groups in particular might be deterred from science because of the factual and authoritarian focus of much science education. A more balanced approach to teaching science might improve recruitment and increase the diversity and talent within the scientific community.

Many thanks to Bernadette Byrne for bringing this paper to my attention.


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