Wednesday, 12 May 1999

Robin Dunbar: The Trouble With Science (1994)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1996
Review number: 248

The title of Robin Dunbar's book leads one to expect some kind of attack on science; instead, it is actually a defence, his major criticisms of the supporters of science being reserved for those involved in education. His major target is the fashionable sociological view of science as subjective and relativistic, purely a product of Western culture.

The main thrust of his attack is to produce evidence of a similar mode of thought in other cultures, both past and present, and even in animal behaviour. He also illuminatingly discusses the various philosophies of science which have been influential in recent years, as well as the nature of religion (because primitive religions are frequently compared to science as providing an explanation of the world around us).

The second major subject area covered in the book, which leads into the attack on the British educational system, is an examination of the ways in which the culture we live in views science. Dunbar looks at several kinds of evidence: the standards by which the media in general reports science (and his verdict is that these are astonishingly low), the amount of coverage in the media (vanishingly small), the attitudes of legislators (publicly supportive but slow with financial backing), as well as the attitudes in educational establishments, both schools and universities.

All this criticism will, of course, be meaningless if he doesn't offer some way to improve matters. Dunbar views scientific theory as a complex entity; there are, to start with, different levels of explanation, from quantum mechanical at one end to biological/ecological at the other - each process at one level is explicable (to some extent) by processes at lower levels, and at each level we tend to see emergent properties as predicted by the mathematics of complex systems. (It would be foolish to directly describe the mechanics of evolution in terms of the motion of subatomic particles, for example.) At each of these levels, science proceeds by formulating theories which have several important properties. These include explaining past and current experimental results and suggesting new avenues of experimentation. New evidence builds up to go with each theory, and as experimental results begin to conflict with the theory (there are several reasons why they will do so, such as increasingly sophisticated experiments), the theory is either modified or a revolutionary new one takes its place.

Together with this theory of science - to which the brief description above hardly does justice - Dunbar suggests changes in scientific education. He thinks that school science teaching should begin at the largest scale, with biology, and that other kinds of science are introduced as the pupil begins to be interested in the other types of explanation, and these can be referred to processes they have already been studying. Since this would lead to a lower level of achievement attainable in physics and mathematics in particular, he also suggests longer degree courses.

I find it difficult to believe that science in general would benefit from such changes. (It does seem likely to me that the general level of scientific understanding among non-scientists might increase.) The first reason for this is purely personal: it would have been pretty hopeless for me. Biology and chemistry were the best-taught of the sciences at my school, but I never enjoyed biology at all and was far more interested in mathematics and physics (I tended to learn by reading at home). The second reason is that biology is a particularly controversial part of science, and so such a change would meet opposition from all sorts of pressure groups: religious groups, those opposed to classroom dissection (a rather wasteful way to kill lots of animals), and the like. Personally, I feel it would be more constructive to change the nature of the teaching at school so there is more emphasis on the explanatory power of science than on the experimental and cataloging side (in physics/chemistry and biology respectively). This may reflect my mathematical background as Dunbar's suggestion does his biological one, but I think that understanding explanations of how things work (and what makes a good explanation) will be more useful in later life, whether a pupil goes on to study science or not. After all, science is about explanations; why shouldn't scientific education also be about them?

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