While channel surfing between cable news programs or perusing news articles on the internet, you are likely to come across stories about the latest public opinion polls regarding climate change, evolution, and even the safety of vaccines. The findings of these polls are often disheartening to anyone who has a firm grounding in the philosophical underpinnings of science.
Having an understanding of which knowledge is authoritative and why it is authoritative is a necessary precondition for any society to adhere to rational decision making. Such decision making can range from broad, national-level policy making to individual lifestyle choices. Yet large segments of our population seem to lack this understanding. Parents' refusal to have their children vaccinated against communicable diseases is one of the most prominent pieces of evidence supporting this fact. So what can be done about this?
We are taught from a young age that at a bare minimum we need the 'Three R's: reading, writing, and arithmetic' to function as responsible citizens. In addition to these subjects we have also made science and history--among other subjects--a priority in primary and secondary education.
However, it is long overdue that we make philosophy and history of science (PHS) a requirement in our middle and high school curricula.
To be sure, finding space in an already dense litany of required classes would require some difficult decision making. No doubt that parents and teachers alike might be slow to see the importance of teaching about Thales, Alhazen, and Karl Popper. And yes, some will fail to see how understanding empirical falsifiability is a necessary life skill. Even so, requiring our students to learn PHS would be an investment with immense returns.
Consider the costs to Americans who utilize so-called alternative medicine products and services. These are treatments for which there is absolutely no scientific evidence attesting to their efficacy. The term 'alternative medicine' is misleading: any treatment that has been shown to be effective through rigorous scientific testing is simply called 'medicine.'
Yet some people hear terms like 'homeopathy' or 'naturopathy' and assume that these products are natural, effective remedies. This perception of alternative medicine has certainly translated to big business for companies that peddle these products. According to a government survey, Americans spend greater than $30 billion a year on alternative medicine. True, these products are--in most cases--inert. But we must consider that the people (with very real health conditions) who use alternative medicine are likely choosing these bogus therapies over effective ones, thereby indirectly depriving these people of medical care. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs' decision to pursue alternative treatments for his pancreatic cancer reveals in stark relief the harm peddling these so-called remedies can have.
An even more urgent problem highlighting the need for teaching PHS is parents' decision to not get their children vaccinated. Although national vaccination coverage among children remains high (>90%), we have seen in the past two years the tragic effects of decision making among scientifically illiterate parents. A record number of cases of measles were reported in 2014, with the vast majority of infected individuals being unvaccinated. The empirical data in support of vaccinating is unequivocal, but what good is data if a large portion of the population fails to understand why that data should be trusted over other sources of information?
It would be easy to say that these examples simply illustrate the consequences of allowing a populace to remain scientifically illiterate. But it is not sufficient to state that these consequences could have been avoided if the population knew that homeopathic remedies are ineffective or that vaccines are safe. Yes, understanding the findings of science is important, but understanding how these findings were discovered and why they should be trusted is far more important. A population well-versed in the philosophy and history of science would not only make smarter decisions for themselves, they would also vote for candidates who espouse positions evidenced by science. If a nation wants to enact scientifically-sound policy, it first needs the support of its citizens.
Science is too often taught primarily as a description of the natural world. While this aspect of science is important, it also needs to be taught as an ongoing, self-correcting process of inquiry moored by philosophical underpinnings. When it comes to science, the why is just as important as the what.