The Teaching Workshop

The Teaching Workshop: Why Philosophy is a Good Introduction to Science

Another thing we can do to improve our pedagogy, along with reflecting on our failures, is to experiment. For this week, we have an experiment by Angela Potochnik, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Cincinnati. Do you have a teaching experiment of your own to share, or questions to be answered? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook.

A few years ago, the Philosophy Department Head here at the University of Cincinnati tasked my colleague Zvi Biener and I with designing a new ‘introduction to scientific reasoning’ course. This was to be similar to a critical thinking course in that it wasn’t about philosophy per se, but instead would leverage the skills of philosophers to address a topic of broad relevance. We called our course How Science Works.

This was not to be a course about philosophy of science. Rather, we decided, it would provide an introduction and overview of the nature of science and forms of scientific reasoning, to the end of producing more sophisticated consumers of science. I like to think of it as philosophy of science in disguise.

Learning goals of our course include the ability to analyze what makes science distinctive and important, as well as recognition of the difficulties with precisely defining science; facility with a range of historical and contemporary examples of science; and improved skills of critical thinking, argumentation, and writing. An unstated learning goal is the greater trust that is often borne of greater familiarity—in this instance, a greater trust in the institution of science, and in specific scientific findings that continue to be a matter of social controversy.

Our students learn to write analytically in short, structured assignments, and they engage critically with texts in class discussions. But they also break out their calculators to find means and standard deviations, deciding whether to reject the null hypothesis. They critically assess the design of experiments and observational studies. Sometimes they do these things for reports of scientific findings or data in the popular media, and then they critique the media write-up.

None of this is unique; a smattering of similar philosophy courses exist at other institutions. But another ingredient of our recipe may be more unusual.

At the time that we were designing this course, our department was, like many humanities departments at public universities, also facing decreasing undergraduate enrollments in our courses. So we decided to try to draw more students to How Science Works by applying for the general education designation of “NS”—Natural Science. This is parallel to how critical thinking or logic courses often qualify for a quantitative reasoning designation (or similar). Our course was approved for the NS designation and, while our motives may have been in part strategic, the outcome is, I believe, excellent.

Something like 60% of our How Science Works students come from outside A&S, a much higher percentage than is drawn to our other courses. For many of those students, this course will be their only college course about science. What they learn is content from a range of sciences, contemporary and historic; what is important and distinctive about science and how it relates to society; and an overview of the broad range of methods scientists use and aims they pursue. I am hopeful that this kind of an overview of science—philosophy of science in disguise—is a particularly good way to increase scientific literacy and the sophistication of the consumers of science media.

Additional Resources:

What teaching experiments have you tried? Join the conversation in the comments below, email us, Jennifer Morton and Michelle Saint, at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.

 

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