The UK’s non-science curriculum

How can values be taught in the school science curriculum, when science is value free?

David Dunn

Topics Politics

The UK science minister Lord Sainsbury has an admirable record of promoting and defending science.

At the start of 2001, Lord Sainsbury defended the Huntingdon Life Sciences facility against the arguments of animal rights protestors, and attested to the safety of the MMR vaccine. In 2000, aware of the long-term decline of scientific research establishments in this country, he announced that cash would be made available to entice ‘brain-drained’ scientists back from overseas (1).

Yet the New Labour government seems to be hoist by its own petard when it comes to combatting public antipathy in matters scientific. If the National Curriculum for science is anything to go by, it looks as if the next generation will be in the dark as to what science actually is.

The science curriculum has come to include the teaching of a set of values which, it is claimed, are universally held. These are laid out in the ‘Statement of values’ produced by the Forum for Values in Education and Society (2). The forum explains to teachers how each individual curriculum – English, history, science and so on – can be used to teach this set of values.

But isn’t science value-free, by its very nature?

I can put it no better than the US professor of mathematics Norman Levitt. ‘Science, bluntly, has no room for human values, purposes, ethics or hopes’, he writes. ‘Science does not – cannot – endorse what we most desperately want to believe, nor refute what we most want to reject.’ (3) Science is an epistemological activity, the success of which is measured by its ability to describe accurately the processes and mechanisms of nature.

Such a clear statement regarding the nature of science is entirely absent from the science curriculum. And the four themes laid out in the statement of values – the self, relationships, society and the environment – all play a role in turning science in the curriculum into something that is not, well, science.

Reading the section of the science curriculum titled ‘Learning across the National Curriculum’ (4), you could be forgiven for thinking that science and religion are close cousins – rather than the deadly rivals they are. For example, pupils’ spiritual development can be aided through science, by ‘sensing the natural…world’, ‘reflecting on their part in it’ and ‘exploring questions such as when does life start and where does life come from?’.

Inspiring as science may be, its purpose is neither spiritual nor moral development. It is a difficult and often frustrating activity. Scientists do not ‘sense’ nature, but meticulously measure aspects of it, develop abstract theories to explain their observations and attempt to reproduce their results under a variety of conditions. Even learning basic science at school is challenging, and the real inspiration comes from realising that humans really can understand more and more of nature.

The curriculum undermines the epistemological authenticity of science. Under the heading ‘Cultural development’ (5), we find that ‘cultural differences can influence the extent to which scientific ideas are accepted, used and valued’. In one sense this is a banal sentiment: of course society influences the direction that scientific research progresses, and which scientific discoveries are valued over others. Such an interpretation doesn’t detract from the fact that science is a reliable method, or that its results are above any moral viewpoint.

But a more developed version of this statement is currently popular among many academic thinkers – namely, that science is ‘constructed’ through negotiations of scientists, and is just another story with no superior claim to truth over myths or superstition.

There is some irony in the fact that myth-making is exactly what the science curriculum seems to be doing: particularly in relation to the environment. The statement of values claims that the environment is ‘the basis of life and a source of wonder and inspiration’, and adds that we should ‘understand the place of human beings within nature’ and ‘ensure that development can be justified’. We should also understand how to ‘repair…habitats damaged by human development’.

Yet the fact is that humans do not experience nature in a benign way. As we have recently been reminded only too well, nature is also the source of disease, famine, floods and earthquakes. Human development does not only damage natural habitats: of greater significance, surely, is the way that development alleviates, or even eliminates, the cost to humans of these disasters.

The National Curriculum argues that sustainable development is a naturally held philosophy. But it isn’t. It is an economic policy that society has fairly recently adopted, for a whole range of social reasons – not least, a growing lack of confidence in the possibilities provided by economic, social and scientific development. How can a concept like sustainable development then be lauded as a universal, timeless value?

The most damaging aspect of the science curriculum is, for me, the way it seems to redefine what science is, and then tries to use science to justify the policy. For example, pupils should be taught ‘how to treat animals with sensitivity’, ‘to recognise similarities and differences between themselves and others and to treat others with sensitivity’, to ‘care for the environment’ (6), and ‘about the importance of sustainable development’ (7).

You may or may not hold these as values, but that is beside the point. They are nothing to do with science.

The curriculum also deals with scientific evidence and the dissemination of information. At GCSE level, the curriculum has that pupils should be taught ‘to consider the power and limitations of science in addressing industrial, social and environmental questions, including the kinds of questions science can and cannot answer, uncertainties in scientific knowledge, and the ethical issues involved’ (8). Is this some kind of attempt to prepare pupils for the ridiculous way in which scientific issues tend to be broadly discussed?

Here we have the confusion between science and technology, science and ethics, science and social policy, and the ‘uncertainty’ which is usually wheeled out by eco-worriers to halt new development. And instead of trying to resolve this confusion, the UK government wants to teach it to school pupils.

The difference between science and ethics is the difference between knowledge and applications of knowledge. Science is knowledge of nature and of the effects of human intervention in nature. Applications of knowledge, on the other hand, depend on the society that possesses that knowledge.

Natural science is unable to answer questions of an ethical nature. Consequently, science should be studied in its own right; and ethical questions about applications of science should be kept separate and studied in history, politics or citizenship classes.

As to the issue of scientific uncertainty, witness the debacle over the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Dr Wakefield, who first raised the possibility of a link between the vaccine and autism, but who is unable to reproduce his results, or otherwise convince his peers, has stated that he wants to see this through ‘to the end’ (9). With some amplification from the media and interest groups, anxious parents see a brave researcher holding out against the establishment. However the research establishment simply see unsubstantiated claims, and a lack of scientific rigour.

No statistical scientist would ever claim with certainty to have ruled out a causative factor. Uncertainty is an inevitable part of statistical science. According to the science curriculum, uncertainty rules the day. But in reality it does not.

Teaching pupils the rudiments of double-blind tests, clinical trial methods and general principles of factoring studies for other influences would clear these scientific confusions. It should be patently obvious that a measles epidemic would be a certain catastrophe, and that the research points to (but of course can never prove) MMR vaccination not being the cause of autism. But, according to the science curriculum, all this shows is uncertainty.

In focusing on the problems with the new science curriculum, my analysis here might seem one-sided. A glimpse at past and specimen exam papers show that most of the subject matter is still good old standard school science – the physiology of plants, chemical reactions and electricity are all still there.

Nonetheless, in physics GCSE pupils are asked to support reports that mobile phones may cause memory loss – an exercise worth twice as many marks as knowing what microwaves are. In biology coursework, a possible topic is to consider whether the compulsory vaccination programs of Victorian England were ethically sound.

My proposal for the science curriculum is straightforward. The existing curriculum should be torn up, and pupils should be taught the basics of science, and how to recognise the difference between ethics and science. Otherwise Lord Sainsbury and his beleaguered colleagues can expect more of the same.

David Dunn is a research associate in the Department of Aeronautics, Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, London

(1) The Times (London) 5 July 2000
(2) The statement of values
(3) Prometheus Bedeviled: Science and the contradictions of contemporary culture, Norman Levitt, Rutgers 1999. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)
(4) The Science Curriculum, p8-9
(5) The Science Curriculum, p8
(6) The Science Curriculum, p17
(7) The Science Curriculum, p50
(8) The Science Curriculum, p37
(9) Tonight with Trevor McDonald 8 February 2001

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Topics Politics


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