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The Black Hole

What Is Science?

I can honestly say that I never truly experienced science until I was a graduate student. Sure, I had a fair chunk of labs in my undergraduate degree - first year involved a full year of biology, chemistry and physics lab sections, and upper years included labs sections in analytical chemistry and organic chem and an entire course that consisted of a biochemistry lab. But each of these labs was what we like to call "cookbook labs" - we weren't generating and then testing any hypotheses; rather, we were following a recipe that we were given to try to find a predetermined answer - the person with the answer closest to the one the prof has already determined gets the best grade. We were learning the technical skills - how to use a pipette, run a DNA fingerprint, or perform a titration, but that was all...

BY BETH | JAN 17 2010

The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions. ~Claude Lévi-Strauss, Le Cru et le cuit, 1964

For my birthday, I received a copy of Skeptic magazine and reading through the information in it on the Skeptic Society and the “What is a Skeptic?” article brought me back to some of the discussions that our group had about “What is science?”  Based on what you learn in most elementary and secondary school science classes, you’d probably answer that question with “science is a collection of facts about living things (biology),  the composition and properties of matter (chemistry) , and energy, motion and forces (physics).”  And even during an undergraduate science education, you really just learn a lot more facts – as if these “facts” were clear cut, set in stone, written in a textbook and merely need to be regurgitated on a multiple choice exam   But science isn’t just a collection of “facts” (and “facts” certainly aren’t “set in stone”) – it’s a process of discovery, a way of learning about the world through testing hypotheses.  So why, then, can you get a Bachelor of Science without ever engaging in the scientific process? ((I realize that not all undergraduate programs are the same and some may even involve such innovative things as actually generating hypotheses and running experiments to test those, but the experiences of our group suggested that this was limited to those who choose to do an undergraudate thesis project or possibly one of those summer NSERCs that Dave was talking about in his last posting.  Please feel free to share you experiences in the comments section)).

Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house. ~Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis, 1905
Facts are not science – as the dictionary is not literature. ~Martin H. Fischer

I can honestly say that I never truly experienced science until I was a graduate student.  Sure, I had a fair chunk of labs in my undergraduate degree – first year involved a full year of biology, chemistry and physics lab sections, and upper years included labs sections in analytical chemistry and organic chem and an entire course that consisted of a biochemistry lab.  But each of these labs was what we like to call “cookbook labs” – we weren’t generating and then testing any hypotheses; rather, we were following a recipe that we were given to try to find a predetermined answer – the person with the answer closest to the one the prof has already determined gets the best grade.  We were learning the technical skills – how to use a pipette, run a DNA fingerprint, or perform a titration, but that was all.  Anecdotally, we’ve also seen that many undergraduate programs are dropping lab sections due to their high cost, meaning that undergrad students show up in our labs as volunteers or work-study students who don’t even know how to pipette!

In addition to little exposure to actually doing science, we also discussed that none of us had any exposure to the theory and philosophy of science.  One friend of ours completed a BSc and MSc in physics, but it wasn’t until she did her PhD in Education that she ever took a course in the philosophy of science.  Personally, the first time I did any real reading on philosophy and history of science was last year when I taught a research methods course ((I did have a research methods course in during my PhD were we touched on epistemology, but just a bit)).  How is it that I have three science degrees, but was never required in all that time to engage in thinking about the philosophy underpinning the field?

To know the history of science is to recognize the mortality of any claim to universal truth. ~Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science, 1995

Moreover, while graduate school brought my first exposure actually doing science ((I was one of those people who went through my undergraduate – an Honours degree, no less – without doing a thesis project. And my work-study job, due to a paperwork snafu at the financial aid office, ended up being doing literature review and admin work rather than the lab job that I was originally hoping to get)), we’ve also all seen Masters, and sometimes even PhD students, who are handed experiments to run, rather than being required to actually come up with research questions and devise hypotheses and the experiments to test those hypotheses   – a cookbook PhD !  Given the pressures to decrease the time people spend in their graduate degrees, as well as increase the numbers of students who get those PhDs, but without an increase in resources isn’t helping with this. For example, less scholarship money available means more students working side jobs and having less time to engage in their PhD work, but they are expected to get the PhD done faster. More PhD students without more profs to supervise those students means each prof has to take on an increasing number of PhD students – with less time to dedicate to mentoring each one.  It’s much quicker and easier to create experiments and hand them over to a grad student to conduct than it is guide that student through the process of doing it for themselves.

So, what can be done about all this? Our group thought of a few possibilities, such as:

  • require courses such as Philosophy of Science for undergraduate science degrees
  • undergraduate lab courses that engage students in actual science, rather than cookbook labs
  • more rigorous requirements to ensure that graduate students — ideally Masters students, but at a bare minimum PhD students — actually create their own projects
  • more funding for graduate students so that they can focus on their graduate work.  Despite being called a “student.” doing a Masters or a PhD is a full-time job and graduate students really

Your thoughts?
Footnotes:

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  1. Mel / January 18, 2010 at 19:24

    I actually took a philosophy of science course in my first year of undergrad, but was disappointed because it was a cookbook philosophy course!!! i.e. you got a good mark by spouting back what the prof had lectured about. So it’s not good enough just to have access to the courses that sound like they should fit the bill, courses other than the traditional science courses also need to work on getting away from the cookbook formula.

  2. Beth / January 18, 2010 at 19:25

    A cookbook philosophy course? Yikes! Yeah, perhaps this is an issue that goes beyond the sciences…

  3. Fred / February 11, 2010 at 19:16

    I whole-heartedly agree with this post. It’s sad that undergraduate science education has been perverted to be a glorified sausage machine. I actually spent quite some time as an undergrad in student government lobbying deans to review curricula with these same arguments in mind. The greater issue is, however, that science undergrads seem to be content or even happy with the predictable but mind-numbing memorization-regurgitation cycle.
    Whatever happened to attending university for self-betterment or to engage in intellectual discourse? Such concepts are lost on most of today’s students.