a call for exploring everyday science education

Today, I continue my experiments in drafting introductions to research proposals.  The text below was written at the suggestion of Professor Peter Coleman of Teachers College, who asked me to write a brief (“people are busy”) statement summarizing my interests to colleagues, mostly scientists in the environmental sciences, in the hope that some might be interested in collaborating.  I am developing here asides I have made about everyday science education in my recent work (2009, 2010).

So, and I quote:


How new scientific knowledge enters the public sphere is something we still know little about-systematically and scientifically. The issue is all the more pressing when this knowledge has immediate political implications-as most forms of scientific knowledge in the past two centuries has had. In physics (relativity theory, atomic bombs, nuclear power), medicine (in vitro fertilization, stem cell research), environmental science (global warming), etc., about all scientific developments have been translated out ofthe scientific polities within which they initially came to make sense, and into broader polities where they remain vigorously debated. Most importantly, as debates have evolved, scientific work has itself been affected. The limits on the use of stem cells, or the investigations into the e-mails of climate scientists, are but the most glaring of an ongoing systemic process of re-appropriation, some would say resistance, of science by non-science.

The issue is often presented as a struggle between the knowledgeable and the ignorant, and the solution as a matter of the knowledgeable teaching the ignorant through some kind of “educational” program–or perhaps just controlling the import of the obdurate ignorant through political marginalization. Such assumptions represent, at best, a naive understanding of educational processes and, at worst, a great danger for the future of scientific work as its authority over the production of knowledge for policy is eroded. Education, for all those who think most deeply about it, is never a simple matter of the transfer of information bits from one unit (generally modeled as an individual person) to another. But it is only recently that we had access to robust theoretical foundations for the systematic investigation of alternative models. This foundation has begun to produce preliminary empirical research illustrating the reality of collective educational processes that had remain relatively hidden to regular inquiry. These developments should allow us better to trace, and perhaps even simulate, what can happen when the temporary consensus of a polity on a topic (e.g., that the earth is warming and that this warming is the result of human industrial activity) is presented to other polities (national governments, local communities, families) as matter requiring action (carbon taxes, recycling regulations, changes in thermostat settings).

On the basis of this recent research, I am convinced that the overall process is best understood as a process of deliberations within and across polities, and thus as an interactional process leading to a temporary consensus about what to do next. I gloss this process as “education” and specify it as a set ofspeech acts (noticing, seeking, asking, instructing, convincing, trying out, evaluating, etc.) that always involve a multiplicity of people linked to each other in complex ways. In this perspective education is not a matter of transfer but a matter of recasting, or perhaps more exactly re-placing, what can appear as a bit of knowledge (or, more exactly again, knowledge with consequences since we are not talking here solely about a cognitive matter but a practical matter for future practices). In this perspective, a new scientific consensus about the world is a challenge to other forms of consensus and a trigger for new educative activities by the various groups caught in the challenge.

Much research is needed on all this.  I am interested in collaborating with others to explore these processes.  More information about the work I refer to is available at:
http://varenne.tc.columbia.edu/hv/edu/edu.html

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