The Lessons of History

When considering the topic of this column, I stumbled across a debate that has persisted for quite some time in the science education domain, one that has been considered by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, AAAS, NSF, and other respected organizations around the world. The subject is the extent to which the history of science should be incorporated into the teaching of science.

The protagonists in this debate charge that science educators today spend far too much time on “what we know” and perhaps too little time on “how we have come to know.” They caution against the implication that scientific principles require no context—that they somehow exist in the absolute.

There is no debate that science is rooted fundamentally in objectivity, logic, and coherence. Still, I share the view that there is a case to be made for exploring the winding path by which individuals (and societies) ultimately acquire their understandings of science.

History shows us that science has, in fact, evolved in ways that often appear to defy logic, lack coherence, and are in a perpetual state of redefinition. Arguably, it is when we have challenged assumptions, when we have experimented and failed, and when we have applied our own unique perspectives that we have seen the greatest breakthroughs in scientific understanding and its application.

We are both the beneficiaries of all of the science learning that has preceded us and the forerunners of the many advancements in science understanding that are to follow. Science centers and museums offer a special opportunity to examine this continuum of scientific knowledge. More and more, our science centers are presenting wonderful displays of science as it was perceived, as it is currently understood, and how it may yet be envisioned in the future. This applies not just to the ever-emerging new applications of science, but also to the continuous refinement of the very scientific principles that we hold today.

Science centers should, of course, always strive to provide science that is accurate, thorough, and current. At the same time, I applaud the many ASTC-member institutions that present science with varying degrees of historical context, in programs and in exhibitions like Darwin, Islamic Science Rediscovered, and Invention at Play, among many others.

Through these presentations, we convey an important message that perspectives and context can indeed inform our scientific understanding and that the progressive accumulation of scientific knowledge is a winding road. The dynamic nature of science learning does not threaten the solid foundation of science, but rather deepens our appreciation of science as a human endeavor.