It’s a new semester and I am teaching two sections of LBST 2213 (STS) along with two sections of introduction to anthropology. The Science Studies course focuses on the nature of science and issues with biological determinist arguments in human sciences. You can see the syllabus here: Syllabus for Science Studies Course: LBST 2213

On the first day of class, I always have students fill out a survey with a couple of innocuous questions (year and major) and a few more interesting questions: why are you taking this course? what do you hope to get out of the course? what is science?

While the first two questions get typical answers like “my advisor told me to?” and “to get more knowledge?”, the final question is much more intriguing. When I ask students to give me a general definition of science, I get a myriad of responses, most of which demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is despite its pervasiveness in our culture. Responses include: “the study of all people”, “the study of facts”, “things that are proven in nature and around the world”, “the study of all things” (see all responses below).

Ignoring the silly answers like “magic”, “Bill Nye is science”, etc., what I see is that there is a huge epidemic in science literacy; not merely understanding particular aspects of science, but misunderstanding science itself. The students come into the class (a general education course made up of ~65% sophomores), many in science majors, within knowing what it is that they are studying and have learned throughout their science courses. While I considered a short post about science in its three parts: body of knowledge, group of methodologies, and social institution, I think it would be more prudent to think about WHY the students have this misunderstanding.

An initial reaction might be to blame the students. They must not have paid attention in their science courses or failed to reflect on it in their own time. However, I think this is merely superficial “victim” blaming as it is clear that society–education included–have failed the students. They are not taught the purpose and nature of science, the difference between scientific and non-scientific questions, science’s place as an institution within culture, or even that there is no one singular scientific method.

When I interrogated this question further, students quickly leap to the answer that science is the way that we produce knowledge. While this completely ignores all other ways (history, qualitative experience, art, etc.), it demonstrates a pervasive belief in scientism:

Historian Richard G. Olson defines scientism as “efforts to extend scientific ideas, methods, practices, and attitudes to matters of human social and political concern.” (1) But this formulation is so broad as to render it virtually useless. Philosopher Tom Sorell offers a more precise definition: “Scientism is a matter of putting too high a value on natural science in comparison with other branches of learning or culture.” (2) MIT physicist Ian Hutchinson offers a closely related version, but more extreme: “Science, modeled on the natural sciences, is the only source of real knowledge.” (3) The latter two definitions are far more precise and will better help us evaluate scientism’s merit. (AAAS on ‘scientism’)

If our goal is to produce educated citizens that are scientifically literate, it is necessary that, not only do we teach students scientific information, but also teach them what it is they are actually learning. If we don’t, then we will continue to see climate science and evolution denial, attachment to reductionist and determinist ideologies, and are at-risk of being mislead by bad science. We are doing our children a great disservice.

Student Responses:

It depends on the question
Anything fact-based.
The study of behavior through observation and experiment
Science is a study of the way things are in different areas through gathering information in multiple ways
Science is the method of studying how things, people, etc interact and work
the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
Science is a way of life.
The study of the world and it’s denizens.
The study of all people
The study and documentation of a subject from as objective a standpoint as possible.
Science is organization of information
Science is the subject of making a hypothesis and running experiments to prove or disprove it.
Study of different aspects of the universe.
Science is a study of multiple different aspect of the earth and human life, from the beginning to the present and even to predict the future.
Looking for facts
A lot of things
It is part of our lives
Science is the study of new information .
The way people develop their innovations, create and learn philosophies, and also study outcomes of experiments etc.
Studying and explaining something
Science is the study of people or objects in their respective environment and how they interact in that environment.
The study of natural an unnatural characteristics of life
Science is the study of things through experiments and data after research.
Science provides explanations for questions that we have and are testable.
Study of facts
things in nature
The study of something
studies and expriements about why things are the way they are
The study of something.
The study of
Is the study of living and non living things in the universe.
The study of… I’m not really sure.
The study and creation of parts of our universe
how things come together and work but science can mean many different things
The study of anything
Science is finding out why and how things are the way they are.
The study of how things interact with each other
Discovering the unknown.
A lesson about life
The study of humans
The study of something
study of structure and behavior
Science is how people figure out how things work
Theoretical hypothesis that shape our societies structure
The study of
Science is the study of proving things about/in the universe/Earth/life
Science is a study of how the world works around us; humans, ecosystems, animals, etc.
A specific means to discover how and why the universe works
Study of things
Studying things, but methodically.
The study of the world around us
The study of…
It depends on which science we are talking about. Science is abroad topic
Science is a subject that entails everything and also tries to solve questions.
Science is the study life, behavior, etc.
The study of all things.
The studying or understanding of the unknown through theories or experiments
To me it’s about life and the surroundings of it
Science is the study of life.
The study of your surroundings.
Bill Nye is science
Science to me is the study of everything
Science is the study of anything around us, both physical and chemical.
Study of the universe and everything between.
study of things
Science is the study of all things
Science is the logical process behind deducing answers and conducting experiments
Study of how everything works and the rules to why things happen.
The study of the natural world and its surroundings.
Things that are proven in nature and around the world
Facts that can be proven in nature
Everything that can be explained through reasoning
Using reason and information to form conclusions about the world around you.
A study of a particular field
A study of something
The study of things
Science is practically everything. It’s why we are all here today.