Opinion | Op-eds

The Core should include history and philosophy of science

Like all top research universities, Columbia advertises to prospective students its “leading scientific discoveries” and the many fields in which it is at the forefront. I am proud of the research I have participated in during my time here. I have been starstruck at lectures by influential scientists, and I’ve been inspired to make my own discoveries. However, during my semester abroad, I have come to realize that a key part of my scientific education at Columbia was missing. What our undergraduate education lacks is the historical background of science to balance the educational focus on the avant-garde. I am not just advocating the better availability of courses in the history and philosophy of science (the interdepartmental committee of history and philosophy of science currently offers one class)—I am advocating the replacement of Frontiers of Science with such a class.

My concerns about the Core Curriculum’s stance on science first arose during my Frontiers of Science lectures as a first-year. However, it was only after taking history and philosophy of science courses at University College London this semester that I was able to articulate my feelings. At UCL, the department of science and technology studies offers undergraduate degrees in the history and philosophy of science. Unlike at Columbia, the discipline occupies its own space and garners the requisite respect as a result. The scientific will to truth does not exempt science from the subjectivity of humans who conduct it. Science, like any other field, should not fall victim to a Whig-like historical perspective. Only by looking at history can we understand the ideologies underlying the truths we hold in the present.

The current frustration shared by a majority of Columbia College students is the “SparkNotes” version of science we are exposed to during Frontiers. It assumes the somewhat patronizing deficit model of students’ understanding, which alienates students of all backgrounds. Although the class is getting a much-needed overhaul soon, from what I understand, the changes are more structural than they are thematic. Science’s unjustified reputation as “other” remains its biggest obstacle to assimilation into the Core. In fact, science poses important questions that affect the lives of all students, regardless of their decision to pursue it later in life. What is objectivity? What is observable? What can we say is knowledge? Just as answers to these questions can be traced back to the Greeks we read in Literature Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, so too have the sciences aimed to resolve these queries. By reading the great thinkers in philosophy of science, we can trace the paths of these questions and thoughts just like we do through literature and political philosophy, avoiding the self-congratulatory, teleological, and distancing stance taken by Frontiers of Science.

[Related: Science has an important place in larger human questions of the Core]

The Frontiers of Science website states that its goal is to “inculcate in them [the students] the habits of mind common to a scientific approach to the world,” which directly contradicts the goals of the Core. Not only does it assume the myth of a singular scientific approach, it ignores any drive for students to approach science from their own perspective. The Core Curriculum website poses a critical epistemic question: “What do we think is, and what have we thought to be worth knowing?”

Frontiers doesn’t allow us to answer those questions for ourselves—rather, it tells us. And it tells us in a way that implies that these facts are indisputable knowledge. Perhaps this is because of the false idea that science requires a singular, empirical mode of thought that we must be taught. This is a dangerous state of mind, and a class like Frontiers only propagates the dogma. Additionally, the class implies that all fields of science require this singular reasoning, and that this “original” approach hasn’t changed since the Renaissance. (I’m serious, go read the Frontiers of Science website.)

If we are to look with a critical eye at the data presented to us, we must be equally skeptical of the epistemic virtues underlying the practices that got us that data. I only care enough to write about what I find missing from the Core because I am indebted to what it has already done for me. Columbia taught me to question my education and seek answers. The Core has shown me how to look at the past and be critical of the present. It’s time that these same values be manifest in the Core’s treatment of science.

The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in neuroscience. She is currently studying abroad at University College London.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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cc'15 posted on

thank you for this Allison - very much agreed! no knowledge is neutral

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physics major posted on

In general, I support the ideas behind this piece. Have there really been changes to the scientific method since the renaissance, though? Besides adding some components of philosophy and theology after making their scientific conclusions, early scientists (Newton, Galileo, Kepler) followed the same method we do.

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I think posted on

that you have a very grave misunderstanding of scientific research and the purpose of Frontiers of Science. Frontiers doesn't tell you that there is only one way to answer a scientific problem. It does, however, explain that there are common approaches that all (yes all) scientist take. Conflating basic ideas about skepticism and interpretation of data (and the other habits of mind) with the argument Frontiers is proclaiming that there is only one approach to take is a silly and misguided argument to take. Whether Frontiers has lived up to its goals or whether its goals about some common scientific approaches (skepticism, statistical analysis) are the ones we should be teaching are both valid questions to ask, but I think you mistake its goals entirely.

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Science and Philosophy posted on

I fully agree that the history and philosophy of science are most important, and necessary to understand the way we do science today, and most importantly, to look at it with critical insight. However, you need to know some science in order to appreciate them.

Just incidentally, Oxford has offered both Physics and Philosophy as well as Mathematics and Philosophy for years. I ignore if they have extended it to other sciences.

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