A Rationale and Outline for an Undergraduate Course on the Philosophy and History of Science for Life Science Students

Philip E Hockberger, Richard J Miller

Abstract


There are compelling reasons for teaching a philosophy of science course to undergraduate life science students. The main reason is to help them understand that modern science is not based upon a single, consistent philosophical system; nor is it based upon common sense, or a method, set of rules or formulas that can be used to make unerring predictions. Rather, science is a dynamic process that is constantly being modified and refined to reflect and encompass an ever-expanding set of hypotheses, observations, and theories. To illustrate these points, we developed a course that examined the history and philosophical underpinnings of modern science, and we discussed famous experiments that challenged the prevailing norm and led to Kuhnian revolutions in scientific thought. Building upon this knowledge, students investigated how different philosophical systems address controversial social issues in the biological sciences. They examined the teaching of intelligent design and creationism in public schools, the implications of legalized abortion and physician-assisted suicide, the potential impact of DNA fingerprinting on human rights and racism, the promise and pitfalls of stem cell research, and the neurobiological basis of consciousness and its relevance to mental health therapies and the animal rights movement. We believe undergraduate life science students should be exposed to these issues and have an opportunity to develop informed opinions about them before they graduate from college. Exploration of such topics will help them become better prepared for the inevitable public debates that they will face as science educators, researchers, and leaders of society.

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