Teaching Science

by Fritz Hinrichs

Keeping Science in Perspective

    When teaching science, it is important to remember that science did not arise out of a vacuum but has a history of its own.   When we teach science without historical context, we set it up as an dogma that can easily usurp the place of other valid authorities.  Students need to develop the computational skills that scientific proficiency requires; however, emphasizing the history of science will keep your science program from becoming narrow.  The history of science has been a rocky and often embarrassing saga; however, this is not the impression you will get using many modern textbooks as they content themselves with simply summarizing the theories that are currently most widely accepted.

    One of the great sagas in the development of science is astronomy.  Astronomy has such a long history because the instruments associated with its study are fairly simple.  If you would like to add a segment to your curriculum to help your student understand this saga, start with Ptolemy’s “Almagest.”  Ptolemy, a first century alexandian mathematician and astronomer, put forward in his “Almagest” a system of astronomy that was widely held for more than 1600 years.  What is so fascinating about Ptolemy’s geocentric system is that he was able to build a coherent mathematical system to explain the observations that could be made with the instruments of his day.  It was not until Tycho Brahe,  a 16th century Danishman, combined the  inquisitiveness of an astronomer with the know-how of a craftsman, that the instruments used in astronomy were improved to the point that they could conclusively show the inaccuracies in the Ptolemaic system.  Given this new level of precision in the astronomical observations, Copernicus was able to set forth a mathematical system using the heliocentric model that was much more accurate than that of Ptolemy.  Even though Copernicus abandoned the heliocentric view, he still held, as Ptolemy did, that the planetary orbits were circular rather than elliptical.  It would take Johannes Kepler, and finally, Isaac Newton in his “Principia Mathematica” to fully show the advantages of employing elliptical rather than circular motion to describe the orbits.  Selections from the writings of Ptolemy, Copernicus and Kepler are contained in volume 16 of  “Great Books of the Western World” from Encyclopedia Britannica (ISBN 0-85229-163-9).  Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” is published by the University of California Press (ISBN 0-520-00927-4).

    Another great saga in the development of Science is the field of anatomy and specifically the understanding of the circulatory system.  Galen, the great second century roman physician, understood the liver to be the actual source of blood which then flooded outward to the body’s extremities.  It was not until William Harvey published “The Circulation of the Blood” in 1628 that this view was replaced with the understanding that the blood actually returns from the extremities to the heart to be reused.  Harvey’s “The Circulation of the Blood” is available from the Everyman’s library (ISBN- 0 460 01262 2) and Harvey’s and Galen’s writings are available in the set, “Great Books of the Western World,” previously mentioned.

    As moderns we are quite quick to dismiss the scientific endeavors of  previous generations as just so much muddle-headed nonsense; however, seeing the mistakes of the past shows us the pitfalls that can be the undoing of our own theories.   Each generation attempts to reconcile its most precise observations with consistent and universal mathematical principles.   Modern science has done much to enshrine itself as a “dogmatism of the present.”  This confidence is the grandchild of the enlightenment’s brave assertions regarding the efficacious character of “objective reason.”  In order to get a good taste of this confidence in the new scientific method, read Francis Bacon’s “The New Organon” (1620) (ISBN 0-672-60289-X).  The German philosopher Immanuel Kant also contributed to modern man’s tremendous confidence in his own scientific powers by declaring that scientific and mathematical laws are not distillations of  consistencies seen in an “external” reality, but merely products of the mind’s own ordering of our sense experience.  Thus in Kant’s view, man need no longer be troubled with the suspicion that he has misinterpreted something outside himself.

    This great confidence in science has not been able to bear the weight of it own presumptuousness.  Even modern secular prophets have come to acknowledge the tenuous nature of the hold that scientific theories can maintain over the human mind.  In “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Thomas Kuhn clearly demonstrates this progression from one scientific paradigm to the next using a number of telling historical examples.  The challenge for modern man will be whether he can face up to the mortality of his scientific idol without racing to the opposite extreme of  mindless relativism.  Given a few generations fed upon the touchy-feely math and science programs that a currently the rage in most educational circles, you can be sure future students will have no experience in their own education background from which they might develop a faith in the existence of  universal scientific laws.

    Our goal should be to teach a humble science.  Not one that would lead to an inordinate presumption regarding its own claims, but neither one that has not the courage rise up and unify the often confusing experience that is the world around us.  An education that will promote such a balanced view of science will not only teach it as set of given computational procedures to be mastered in order to come to correct answers, but also as a field with a tumultuous history of its own, that will never stop developing until man ceases the process of observation and reflection.  Humble science will not parade about as an end in itself rewarding absolute knowledge to its epistemologically greedy devotees, but will point us beyond itself to the One whose nature we are delighted to plum by studying His mysterious yet comprehensible creation. 

    The combination of ancient pedagogy and modern technology will allow homeschooling to increase both the depth of students and their number.