By IHE Fellow Peter Ulrickson
Are citizens persuaded by scientific claims? If not, why? What might justify skepticism? To understand the public sense of the word “science,” we should look to how science is taught, not to theories of what it is. The ordinary classroom is the place that gives the word its political character.
In his Summa Theologiae, Saint Thomas Aquinas asks a striking question: “Can one man teach another?” Perhaps he despaired while grading.
Jesting aside, let us consider what is at stake. What alternatives are there? We might caricature them as the communist and the aristocrat. One possibility, the communist, is that there is only one “knowing” shared by all people. To learn is to acquire a stake in something we all possess in common. The other possibility, the aristocrat, is often associated with Plato. This is the “old money” position: that learning is remembering. We already knew, but forgot until now. It was all inherited.
In contrast to these, Saint Thomas says that in learning I gain something that is both mine and new. I need not acquire it on my own, however. A teacher can help, as a doctor helps me gain health.
How does the teacher help? The pupil of Saint Albert names two ways. One is to clarify the chain of reasoning. Mathematicians call this way the giving a proof. The other is to give the student data. The data can be of two kinds. One is sensible experiences. The teacher can tell us to look at the leaves on a tree, or at the moon, or into the microscope. Another kind of data is the principles, rules, or laws that govern a specific domain. The teacher tells us that planets move in elliptical orbits about the sun.
The impressive growth and success of the natural sciences make it difficult to teach as teaching has been outlined above. What is the difficulty?
Here is one example. When it comes time to learn about the solar system, we look at images rather than things. These are detailed, colorful, and exciting, but intermediaries. We could look up at the sky and see the planets for ourselves. Over a few months we could see how they move, even in the absence of any theory. But, instead of leading students through the longer, perhaps more painstaking process of seeing planetary movement for themselves, here educational curricula often sacrifice the direct vision of orderly planetary motion for the sake of pixels from probes and unseen laws. Ambition for universality displaces the empirical.
Another example is found in mathematics. With the laudable goal of preparing students for technical careers, we emphasize practical computations in a way that obscures the fundamental place of definition and axiom. Euclid had five postulates, but he is gone and none have taken his place.
We cannot spend all our time proving, vital though it is. It would be unreasonable to hope to build up, wholly anew in each student, the entirety of scientific knowledge. To bake bread from scratch does not require that we grind our own grain. What can guide us, then? What is to be shown, and what is to be postulated? Marketing gives a clue. Many foods are advertised as “local” and “organic.” Let our data be the same. There is an ineluctable human scale. Should students make the measurement, or simply be told the result? Should we derive the formula, or assert it? We will answer these questions well by keeping in mind the aim — that the ordinary student sees the principles as principles, and how conclusions flow from them.
Scientific knowledge is different than the virtue of prudence. To know the difference we must know what science is. The distinction is politically relevant.
At times, humbler aspirations yield greater success. In limiting scientific education by respecting the personal scale, we find space for data and for demonstration. Such teaching brings about conviction which is, as Saint Thomas explains, both interior and novel. Such learning is, of itself, persuasive.
Peter Ulrickson is a professor of mathematics at The Catholic University of America.