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Philosophy in Physics Classroom?

September 16th, 2019

(Translation of an article in: IPN Journal No 4)

Science instruction in times of “fake news” and skepticism towards science


Hanno Michel

The demands placed on modern science education are changing at a time when available information is almost limitless via various media - above all the Internet - but at the same time when the source from which this information comes and the ulterior motives with which it may be formulated and interpreted are becoming increasingly blurred.

On the one hand, teaching should prepare students for university studies and impart the wide range of scientific concepts and knowledge necessary to achieve this. On the other hand, those who will not take up scientific studies or a technical profession should also be qualified to participate in decision-making processes with a scientific background. All too often, students leave school with the idea that scientific knowledge is a collection of facts, of "proven" facts that emerge directly from nature around us, if one is only ingenious enough to recognize them. Even seasoned scientists sometimes envision an "objective" science and hardly deal with the very essence of scientific knowledge.

Nowadays, however, school education must also prepare for other challenges. More and more, recognized scientific explanatory models - such as the human impact on climate change, the theory of evolution, the purpose of vaccinations - are being questioned, and formerly respected authorities such as the scientific community are being referred to as liars and their statements and results as fake news. Of course, it is also true that many scientific assumptions and models cannot be conclusively proven. In the philosophical sense of science, they are fundamentally tentative, subjective and man-made. Scientific findings can therefore justifiably be viewed and evaluated critically. However, this can have a great effect if people first critically examine theories and explanatory models they believe to be reliable in connection with populism, instrumentalisation and general scientific skepticism. Thus, citizens should also learn that the scientific community with its values and conventions provides an effective instrument for evaluating the quality of postulated theories and explanations and thus creating a broadly accepted knowledge base in the long term. It allows us to make calculations that put people on the moon or estimate whether it will rain tomorrow. Through the appreciation of this knowledge and the underlying scientific values, it is less likely to be wiped away as fake news. As part of my doctoral project, I have been looking into the question of how lessons can be designed that combine subject-specific content with philosophical aspects of science, and what effect they have on students' perception of scientific concepts. On the technical side, the focus was on the energy concept, which represents one of the basic concepts in physics teaching, but at the same time is apparently difficult for students to grasp and understand. And even Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, who is well known for his illustrative lectures on physics, admits: "It is important to realize that in physics today, we have no knowledge of what energy is". You can neither see energy nor measure it directly. Rather, it is an abstract, mathematical quantity that is calculated using formulas, but which, despite its abstract nature, is of great value to the natural sciences. The law of conservation of energy - even if it can never be finally proven - is one of the basic principles of science and helps to explain many different phenomena in physics, chemistry, biology or other subjects. From the point of view of philosophy of science, apart from the scientific aspects of the energy concept, further epistemological aspects (epistemological aspects concerning the nature of the energy concept) can be formulated worth addressing in the classroom. In order to approach these aspects in class, students can be introduced to general aspects of nature of science, which are then merged with the concrete subject content and discussed together. For example, experiments in which scientific aspects are developed can then be discussed in an epistemological context. Students can thus see themselves as researchers who bring with them a certain subjective knowledge, an individual view of the world and their own interests and who may interpret the results of experiments in different ways against this background - just as they do in everyday science. Alternatively, examples from the history of science can show how new theories emerge and which criteria are used to assess their usefulness. Alternatively, examples from the history of science can show how new theories emerge and which criteria are used to assess their usefulness. In addition to theoretical considerations and work on the design and benefit of such integrated teaching, I have also transferred and researched the described activities in practice. A study with 191 high school students, for example, showed that an approach to Nature of Science in which epistemological aspects are explicitly addressed and discussed can give learners a different perspective on the energy concept. The participants in such an integrated unit showed a much more informed understanding of the abstract, man-made nature and a higher valuation of the energy concept than the participants of a comparable "classical" unit to the energy concept. On the other hand, the integration of philosophical aspects of science did not seem to have any influence on the learning of scientific elements; here, both groups showed similar progress in learning. With appropriate implementation in the classroom, students can learn to combine nature of science and content knowledge and thus gain a sustainable and compatible picture of science, which also includes the nature of scientific knowledge and the underlying concepts. In my doctoral project I concentrated on the energy concept. Other scientific concepts for which epistemological aspects can be formulated are also interesting for further research and development work, as well as for teaching. The schematic representation of magnetic field lines, for example, could be used to bring learners closer to the model character of scientific theories. In the past (and to some extent still today) highly contested concepts such as evolution or the Big Bang theory could serve as examples of how scientific knowledge is constantly developing and how new theories and explanatory models must satisfy certain quality criteria to be accepted. An exciting follow-up question in this context would be whether students who value the usefulness and explanatory power of a scientific concept are also more willing to use this concept in dealing with unknown questions. A critical view of scientific knowledge and criticism of scientists themselves is not new - the scientific community itself is highly discursive. As a rule, however, discussions in that community are usually conducted politely and in line with common values and criteria rather than with accusations that the content is fake news. If students experience and practice a critical but objective discussion during their school years, those who will not work in science in the future will also be prepared for a critical examination of scientific topics.

In the future, it may then be easier to involve society as a whole in science-related discussions and decision-making processes and not allow individual vocal players to choose solutions that are allegedly simpler.

Using the history of science:

As early as 1914 it was observed that the so-called beta decay (i.e., the decay of a mother nucleus into a daughter nucleus and an electron) apparently in most cases violated the law of conservation of energy, which led to controversial discussions in the scientific world. For example, Niels Bohr, one of the most important physicists of his time, was of the opinion that the law of conservation of energy could indeed be invalid during nuclear transformations. At a congress on atomic nuclei in Brussels in 1933, Wolfgang Pauli contradicted him by postulating the existence of a previously unknown particle that would explain the missing energy after decay. According to Pauli, this particle is simply not measurable because it is too small and light and at the same time does not carry any charge. Pauli could not provide any evidence for his assertion and so both interpretations existed side by side for some time and were widely discussed. It was not until 1956 that scientists finally succeeded in observing a particle with the same properties as the neutrino described by Pauli. Today neutrinos are a widely accepted part of the Standard Model of elementary particle physics.

The examination of the conflict between Bohr and Pauli and the reading and discussion of their points of view can be used to illustrate subjectivity and the role of creativity in science. Further development shows the tentative nature of scientific knowledge and the role of quality criteria for the further development of the same, but especially also the explanatory power of the energy concept and the predictive power of the law of energy conservation, which here led to the postulation of a completely new particle.