How would a teacher respond when asked, 'What do you teach when you teach science?'
The answer for a conventional science teacher is easy -'All about biology, Newton's laws, the reaction of sulphur. . .' From an innovative teacher the answer might be - 'Not just information, but observation, ability to set up experiments, to deduce, and so on'. A professional scientist might answer, 'I am exploring a small part of the universe and making models of it'. A philosopher of science would talk about the features which distinguish science from other human activities, namely the essential continuity of scientifIc activity, its lack of individuality and freedom from bias.
All these aspects are certainly in my mind as the classes go on. The facts are important, the reactions of sulphur need to be known, the children should have the thrill of seeing observations fit theories and recognise the wonder of a piece of natural machinery.
In such a context, where memorisation need not dominate, teaching science becomes a thoroughly enjoyable activity. It also involves reading about the history of science, and it is in this context that one begins to ask some serious questions. Can you and should you teach biology without going into the ethics of animal experimentation? Can you teach physics and chemistry as a set of isolated experiments? To place these questions in context requires talking about the scientists and their motivations.
Scientists are people trained to be keenly observant, to generalise, to be detached; trained to break cherised models, to subject ideas to ruthless questioning, to share ideas without national or linguistic boundaries. And these seem to be the very qualities that would make the world free from division - a truly global village. However, considering the importance that science has assumed in society over the past hundred years, one wonders why the world is still rent with dissension and War.
Haber discovers the process of making ammonia from nitrogen in the air. This revolutionizes agriculture and he is hailed as the saviour of the human race. A few years later, he discovers poison gas, and as a patriotic German, offers it as an equal contribution to society!
During the second world War, impelled by rumours that the Germans were well on their way to creating the atom bomb, a group of American scientists pushed the American political system into an all-out effort to make the bomb. The bomb is made with the combined efforts of hundreds of eminent scientists. But Germany is on the verge of defeat and the bomb is not needed. However, weapons made have to be used. And over the protests of the scientists, the atom bomb is dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leading to much soul-searching on the part of most of its creators.
It seems to me that the whole training that scientists undergo - to develop the capacity for ruthless questioning - is applied in a narrow way. In the laboratory you see an observer keenly aware that his or her biases have an effect on the observations; go home, and this capacity for questioning, watching for bias, are dropped along with the laboratory coat. And there you see an individual who is chauvinistic, biased, and fearful; one whose capacity to observe does not extend to personal motivations and relationships; whose identity can be as nationalistic or as feudal as that of any non-scientist neighbour.
Scientists attempt, perhaps, to solve this dichotomy mainly in two ways. One is to consider all questions which cannot be subjected to the scientific method as irrelevant. The other is to put them out of the realm of science to be tackled by other means.
This of course leads to the alienation of science and scientists from society. Scientists can continue to work on potentially destructive research by glorifying it as a pure search for Truth... Or put the onus of stopping the use of such research on public ethics and morality. But public morality reflects private ones. There are very few scientists who have debated the morality of doing certain kinds of research - be it in agriculture, industry, medicine or defenceand fewer who have called for a moratorium on destructive research. It is usually the 'lay' perspectives or fears which dominate debates on the ethics of research - from the making of weapons to genetic engineering.
In our schools, it is easy to reach science in such a way as to make the children appreciate underlying relationships and harmony in nature, and to be thrilled about it. The greater challenge is to show, using science as a starting point, that limited questioning leads to limited answers which in turn lead to limited human beings. When I teach chemistry, am I not also responsible for making them see this whole picture, and hopefully go beyond, to explore the realm of the self with the same awareness as one would look at a lily or a louse?