Nurturing suspicion: what college students learn about science

Phil Mole

Skeptics complain about postmodern attacks on science in college “science and society” classes but don’t address the reasons these criticisms are so persuasive. When college students don’t learn about the complexities and social dimensions of scientific inquiry, they are vulnerable to the egalitarian appeal of postmodern relativism. Skeptics must confront this problem.


Six years ago, while finishing my graduate public-health coursework at an Illinois university, I took a class that forged my interest in skepticism and critical thinking. The course, called “Behavioral Sciences in Public Health,” certainly had anything but this purpose among its educational goals. This course was a local species of a relatively new genus–the “science and society class,” examining the cultural and social contexts and implications of scientific discovery. Students frequently encounter these courses in graduate school, usually as an interdisciplinary-studies class required by their department curriculum. While the specific content of these classes varies, a surprising number of them teach a highly radical view of science that exclusively focuses on its real and imagined deficiencies.

Much of the time, these classes confuse rather than clarify issues pertaining to science and society. For example, the syllabus for “Behavioral Sciences and Public Health” promised to help students “become sufficiently confused about the complexities of professional life,” to teach them information needed to “critically participate in public health-care practices” and create a “thick reading of one’s social position.” I am still not sure what the first and last objectives mean–perhaps I was “sufficiently confused.” But I learned soon enough that the class was not interested in teaching students to critically participate in public-health care or in anything else requiring scientific literacy. The course was not a balanced, critically informed discussion of the merits and limitations of science. It was a lopsided diatribe against the arrogance of science and its suppression of other, allegedly valid “ways of knowing.”

We read articles claiming the language, assumptions, and methodologies of science to be inherently sexist and imperialistic, and fundamentally opposed to the role of intuition and the expression of femininity. An article by Ruth Hubbard maintained that scientists construct fact claims in order to justify their own economic positions and prevent the social mobility of women and ethnic minorities (Hubbard 1990). We perused the writings of Sandra Harding and Luce Irigaray and read more testimony that science represents the ideologies of white males seeking to disenfranchise, deflower, and discredit femininity at every opportunity. These authors discussed “alternate epistemologies,” suppressed by chauvinist scientists, and considered conventional science inherently inauthentic. Harding directly implicated the ethics and methodology of traditional science in “wrong-headed environmental policies and the long-recognized alienation that people in industrialized societies feel from their culture, communities, and ‘true selves'” (Harding 1996). Other articles went even further, comparing professional medical skepticism of alternative medicine to the persecution of witches and heretics in centuries past.

I recently completed a second “science and society” course as part of a graduate educational-studies curriculum. This course, called “Introduction to Research Purposes and Methodologies,” proved remarkably similar to the earlier course. We learned repeatedly that science was seriously flawed and that scientific inquiry was only one of many possible methods of learning about the world. There was a similar emphasis on feminist alternatives to science and the same emphasis on “patterns of male dominance” inextricably woven into the methodology of science. A paper by Lee Harvey presented a new paradigm of social research, rejecting the traditional ethnographic goal of objective explanation. Lee alleged that the conventional approach reeks of cultural presumptions and moved to replace it with a methodology “which attempts to link the detailed analysis of ethnography to wider social structures and systems of power relationships in order to get beneath the surface of oppressive structural relationships” (Harvey 1990). Many of the other papers, with varying intensity, renewed the charge that science is bigoted and exclusionary. To the authors of these articles, science is but a flickering shadow in Plato’s cave and can claim no superiority to other methods of describing ultimate reality. If the light of scientific reason dispelled the rival shadows of intuition, old-world folk medicine, and anecdotal evidence, these authors preferred to praise the darkness.

An Incomplete Education: What Science Classes Do Not Teach

My initial exposure to the criticisms of science in “Behavioral Sciences and Public Health” stimulated me to learn why these critics were reaching such radical conclusions. To learn more about the source of their ideas, I had to train myself in philosophy of science and the rules of critical thinking. As a result, I can now see even more clearly than ever that the authors usually included in “science and society” courses are deeply mistaken in their claims that science is not superior to other systems of inquiry. They are also mistaken in their judgment that science reflects only sexist and imperialist assumptions. But I can also clearly see that their radicalism is not possible without a deep ignorance of what science is and how it works. Unfortunately, science teachers and other supporters of science play a large part in propagating this scientific ignorance. Skeptics are often quick to disparage postmodern critics of science but slow to address the larger science-education problems that allow their message such a large measure of success.

Both critics of science and the college students they seek to indoctrinate obtain their scientific knowledge from science classes in high school and college. Both groups leave these classes with an incomplete image of how science works, and this ignorance shapes their receptiveness to radical deconstructions of science. Too often, science textbooks and professors present science as a codified body of theorems and facts, and ignore the messy history of arriving at our current knowledge. To a point, this strategy is understandable. There is only so much time in a semester, and teaching about all of the false starts, dead ends, and conceptual confusions in the history of science threatens to gobble up valuable class time. Yet we cannot properly understand how science works if we do not pay due justice to this complexity and learn how and why scientists choose one scientific theory instead of another. This comprehension requires us to examine what rival theories coexisted with the theories that eventually gained acceptance and the reasons these theories seemed attractive to scientists of that time. Why, for instance, do physicists no longer believe an invisible ether permeates all of reality? If the ether is simply a silly outlandish idea, why did so many brilliant scientists think the ether existed in the first place?

When we examine specific episodes in scientific history, we see that social and personal biases do not necessarily impede the search for objective truth. James Clerk Maxwell developed his laws of electromagnetic radiation in the nineteenth century while retaining the common cultural belief in the existence of the ether. Maxwell even believed the existence of the ether was necessary for the propagation or electromagnetic waves. Alter all, the existence of a wave apparently implied the existence of a medium. Just as ocean waves require water to travel, electromagnetic waves also require a medium through which to be transmitted. Einstein later rendered the concept of the ether unnecessary with his theory of relativity, but Maxwell’s equations are no less valid. The truth of Maxwell’s equations did not depend on the reality of the ether, because his theory contained much else that is true and useful.

Similarly, the existence of scientific bias does not undermine the validity of evolution. Charles Darwin was thinking of Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population when he conceived of the “struggle for existence” at the center of his theory of evolution by natural selection. He was working with a Victorian cultural bias toward individualism that predisposed him to stress competition for limited resources in his model of evolutionary change. This emphasis on selection allowed him to explain how new species could form through a series of modifications but did not emphasize the role of non-selective forces in evolution. Since Darwin’s time, evolutionary researchers of different theoretical persuasions have correctly demonstrated that much evolutionary change does not reflect adaptation due to direct competition between species. We currently realize that selectively neutral mechanisms such as genetic drift play major roles in evolution, but we do not reject Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Darwin’s great book still contains the most cogent demonstrations of the reality of evolution and still provides the basic intellectual framework for modern discussions of evolution.

These examples show that scientific truth is not all or nothing and progress does not cease because scientists have cultural and ideological biases. We simply need scientists to differ in their particular biases and a system of scientific inquiry open to new viewpoints and facts. This is not to say that there have not been many egregious errors in the history of science and many times when sexists and racists used the veneer of scientific fact to bolster their dubious claims. Nevertheless, even socially biased scientists can and do make lasting contributions to scientific knowledge. The nineteenth-century scientist Paul Broca used comparative anatomical studies to “prove” blacks were mentally inferior to whites, but he also made important discoveries in cognitive neuroscience. He completed important studies of aphasia–an inability to use language resulting from a localized brain injury. We may rightly deplore his racism, but we cannot erase his accomplishments. We also cannot ignore the fact that other scientists eventually exposed the flawed methodology of his comparative brain studies and debunked his racist conclusions. Competing biases among scientists are a major reason for the success of scientific inquiry.

Credulity: The Consequence of an Incomplete Education

What happens when students never learn about the historical development of science–when they never comprehend the significance of the scientific method? They leave their science classes with a highly idealized, intellectually impoverished view of science that is highly vulnerable to attack. When they encounter modern cultural criticisms of science in “science and society” classes, they have no larger perspective to balance against these claims. They never learned that great scientists have often been fantastically wrong and never learned about the role of bias in developing scientific theories. As a result, any evidence that scientists do have bias, or that they sometimes make mistakes, causes them to question the validity of the entire scientific enterprise. In Christopher Hitchens’s memorable phrase, “utopia becomes the subconscious enabler of cynicism.” If students initially learned anything about the complex social history of science, they would have some intellectual armor against the ideologically charged claims of modern science critics.

Even worse, teachers of “science and society” classes are doing very little to broaden the perspectives of their students. Students study only the ideas of the far, radical left–the “marginalized” souls who scoff at criteria of judgment and decry the elitism of anyone claiming to have real knowledge about the empirical world. Instructors do not provide exposure to responsible scholarship about the social underpinnings of science or any works written from non-radical perspectives. The absence of a more balanced selection of readings is especially puzzling, given the abundance of quality material available in most good bookstores or in peer-reviewed journals. Yet neither of the “science and society” classes I took bothered with these texts. Students did not have opportunities to read such fair-minded works as David Hull’s Science as a Process, Helen Longino’s The Fate of Knowledge, Michael Ruse’s Mystery of Mysteries, or any number of important articles from history-of-science journals such as Isis and Osiris. Instead, students read the same tired bromides about the “social construction” of scientific knowledge and the oppression of “the Other”–with the latter word usually capitalized lest we miss the message. Indeed, none of the readings in either class I took cited any respected science historians or philosophers or even acknowledged their existence.

As currently taught, “science and society” classes do not nurture the critical thinking abilities of students. They only nurture a deep suspicion toward all truth claims, particularly those claims perceived to clash with the political ideals of students. The corollary to this rejection of truth claims, paradoxically, is the promiscuous acceptance of truth claims. If there are no valid criteria for accepting the truth of science, then virtually any idea about the empirical world is valid and there are no authoritative reasons to reject or accept any particular idea. There is only one idea students believe is objectively true, and that is the idea that all truth is relative. And in a climate of relativity, they feel free to campaign for their own subjective visions of reality and accept those ideas that best accord with their intuitive sense of what the world ought to be like. They dismiss questions about what the world actually is like as hopelessly naive or symptoms of the dreaded disease of elitism.

Much has been said about the influence of postmodernism on radical critics of science, but my own experience convinces me that we are simply seeing a modern variation of a long democratic tradition: mistrust of authority. Postmodernism, with its fancy jargon about social constructivism and observer-mediated realities, has simply reinvigorated the anti-elitism and ideological relativism always present in democratic societies. In a deep sense, postmodern relativism is simply a new language for reclaiming the emotional attachment to egalitarianism fostered by grammar and high-school history classes. Students taught a sanitized vision of modern society in which the tenet that “all men are created equal” later bumps against the hard realities or inequality and the role scientists have played in strengthening those inequalities. The radical relativism of postmodernists touches just the right chord with these jaded students. In a world where heroes have clay feet and justice is elusive, postmodernism provides the solace of believing that egalitarianism still thrives in the intellectual plane. If all men are not created equal, they can at least take comfort in the equality of ideas.

Thus, most critics of science are acting from admirable motives. When they complain of the marginalizing effects of traditional science, they believe they are acting in the spirit of equality. They believe that science isolates and trivializes other groups to solidify its own status, and they want to rescue these isolated voices from perceived oblivion. But they fail to realize a fatal flaw in their approach. By emphasizing only the flaws and biases of science, they present a skewed image that not only contradicts responsible scholarship but also erodes both public understanding and support of science. In a society largely dependent upon scientific knowledge, these are dangerous ideas. Indeed, the greatest irony hidden from modern critics of science is that they are actively undermining the very foundation of the democratic society they claim to cherish. Democracy can flourish only in a climate of rationalism that sees some ideas as true and others as false. Science, with all of its limitations, is still the best methodology for discovering this truth.

This realization, however, requires some familiarity with the real methodology and ideas of science–not just postmodern caricatures of them. It is quite easy to convince students to devalue science when they never learned what science is in the first place. Teachers innocent of the slightest knowledge of science cultivate the ignorance of students, and they even convince students that this ignorance serves progressive political interests. They encourage students to adopt a purely political view of science and do not encourage them to acquire the scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary for informed discussion. The student emerges from “science and society” classes with no valid criteria for evaluating scientific arguments and comes to believe that only political and rhetorical considerations really matter. Who makes the most impassioned speeches for political egalitarianism? Who seems to be sticking up for the rights of the underdog? Students learn to banish the notion of scientific objectivity with a shrug and embrace the rhetoric of anyone invoking the ideals of equality and democracy. Their minds become mere flotsam and jetsam adrift on the waves of rhetoric. You can almost feel the collective shifting of their opinions during class discussions, while their peers present reductive, emotionally appealing summaries of various positions in complicated scientific debates. Would they so easily succumb to these ideas if they had learned more about realities of scientific inquiry instead of only the idealized fantasies presented by science teachers or the dystopian fantasies of radical science critics?

Conclusion: What Then Is to Be Done?

Skeptics should acknowledge the depth of the problems entangled with postmodern criticisms of science. Too often, we have ridiculed the radical critics without trying to understand the appeal of their ideas or the conditions necessary for the acceptance of their message. The preceding analysis should demonstrate that most students learn nothing of importance about the nature of science in their core science classes, and this ignorance leaves them receptive to alternate models of scientific inquiry. Not surprisingly, students are most appreciative of those descriptions of science that best satisfy their own longings for justice and equality. After learning that science is much more contentious than their high-school and college courses led them to believe, these students crave emotional solace. They want the kind of certainty that only relativism can provide, in which indifference to the very idea of authority erases all real doubts. “Science and society” classes address this need and fill the intellectual void partially created by the incompleteness of the students’ earlier science courses. As a result, postmodernism erases the helpful doubt that stimulates real thinkers to rigorously challenge their own preconceived notions and pursue the difficult pleasure of objective truth.

To remedy this situation, we have to change the educational process itself. First, we need to address the history and philosophy of science in core science curricula. Presently, students in high-school and college science classes learn only the end products of scientific inquiry, and none of its inherent methods and ideas. If students are to fully understand the successes of science, they need to learn about its failures and the historical contexts of scientific ideas. They have to understand the way science thrives from competition between rival scientists with opposing biases and ideologies. This knowledge will give students a broader intellectual defense against the plaintive but ill-informed claims of modern science critics.

Some students, unfortunately, enter their “science and society” classes with no core science courses to their credit. For this reason, universities need to ensure that these classes provide students with a balanced perspective about science, not simply indoctrination into radical politics. Students should have the opportunity to read what experts in the philosophy and history of science have to say and understand the logic of scientific inquiry. Classes that do not provide these opportunities cannot claim to provide a responsible education. They leave students poorly prepared for participation in a scientific, democratic society.

Throughout American history, there has always been a tension between the productive ideal of allowing open pursuit of truth and the counterproductive ideal of simply subordinating all questions of truth to public opinion–the establishment of tyranny by majority. If the latter ideal comprises the current goal of “science and society” classes, the former ideal may prove an effective remedy. A democratic malady requires a democratic cure. We skeptics need to focus our attention not only on exposing the sham egalitarianism of postmodernism but also on showing that science is a better foundation for democratic ideals. As scientist Robert Lawrence Kuhn recently stated, “Science needs democracy as much as democracy needs science. Vigorous scientific research reflects democratic principles in action, and free and open scientific inquiry cannot take place without the protective support of a robust democracy” (Kuhn 2003). If we try to teach students about the complexities of scientific inquiry, we can lessen the nurturing of suspicion and more effectively nurture the thinking skills needed to become that greatest of rarities in modern society: an informed citizen.

Further Reading

Haack, Susan. 2003. Defending Science–Within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism. Amherst, New York: Prometheus.

Harding, Sandra. 1996. Gendered ways of knowing and the “epistemological crisis” of the West. In Goldberger, et al. (eds.) Knowledge, Difference and Power. New York: Basic Books.

Harvey, Lee. 1990. Critical Social Research. London: Unwin Hyman.

Hubbard, Ruth. 1990. The Politics of Women’s Biology. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Hull, David L. 1990. Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Irigaray, Luce. 1987. Is the subject of science sexed? Hypatia, 12(3).

Kitcher, Philip. 2002. Science, Truth, and Democracy (Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Science). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kuhn, Robert Lawrence. 2003. Science as democratizer. American Scientist, 91 (5).

Longino, Helen E. 2001. The Fate of Knowledge. New York: Princeton University Press.

Phil Mole is a freelance writer who frequently writes about issues relating to science and philosophy. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Venecia, and hopes to earn a teaching certification in the near future. E-mail:

COPYRIGHT 2004 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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