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close this bookPopularization of Science and Technology - What Informal and Non-formal Education Can Do? (Faculty of Education,University of Hong Kong - UNESCO, 1989, 210 p.)
close this folderPapers presented at the Conference:
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentScience for all people: Some educational settings and strategies for the popularisation of science and technology - Harbans Bhola
View the documentNonformal education: A hinge between science and culture - Camillo Bonanni
View the documentThe popularisation of science and technology from an educational designer’s standpoint - Fred Goffree
View the documentPatterns of nonformal and informal education effective for the polarization of science and technology - Ana Krajnc
View the documentScience and technology in public adult education - Klaus Pehl
View the documentCompetition and complementarity between formal and nonformal education - Jean-Emile Charlier
View the documentIndigenous cultural tradition and the popularisation of science and technology - Bernard H.K. Luk
View the documentPopularization of science and technology: The cultural dimension - Cheng Kai Ming
View the documentThe role of Science Teacher Associations in promoting the popularisation of science through nonformal means - Jack B. Holbrook
View the documentPopularizing educational technology: The INNOTECH model - Jose B. Socrates
View the documentOut-of-school activities: The road to success - Cheng Donghong
View the documentEducation and technology transfer in Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, China - Gerard Postiglione
View the documentPopularization of science and technology - Kurt Prokop

Indigenous cultural tradition and the popularisation of science and technology - Bernard H.K. Luk

It is a fact of modern life that science and technology develop very rapidly, that new knowledge is being discovered, and new inventions made, by researchers every day, only to become outmoded in a few years’ time. Modern science has provided extremely vigourous and powerful explanations for natural phenomena, and has also lent its theories to innumerable applications which enable humankind to control some of the forces of nature to an unprecedented degree.

While such control has brought forth both benefits and dangers, especially such frightening dangers as the industrial importance of scientific knowledge in twentieth- century life. Technological successes have vindicated science not least among those who know very little about science and has given it a mysterious, quasi-magical aura. No wonder, then that one of the major trends in twentieth century education has been the increasing emphasis on science education.

Science education at all levels, and in rich as well as poor countries, is needed and desired both for spreading “scientific literacy” among the members of society to improve their participation in modern life, and for training the scientific and technological personnel which a society needs for the economic and social functions of today and tomorrow. In the less developed countries, especially where both the general “scientific literacy” and the available pool of native technological personnel tend to be rather limited, the perceived need of science education is all the greater. This is well attested by UNESCO statements during the past few decades, which stress the importance of science education in helping these societies to take off from the mass misery of poverty and disease, and make good speed on the way to economic development.

But the popularisation of science and technology should aim at not only the spreading of basic knowledge among the general population of scientific and technological topics, but also at de-mystification and de-dogmatization of science and technology. Since science and technology develop very quickly, a recognition of the changeability of science and technology should be a basic part of the attitude that popular as well as professional education in science attempt to cultivate. Change implies history; and history is the continuous view of things. This paper attempts to argue for the need for history of science and technology as a component in the training of science educators - not only for formal schooling, but also for informal and non-formal education, to cultivate a sense of changeability and relativism which these educators could then transmit to the learners, to enable them to rise above awe and mystification and to make the best use of science and technology in their social and economic life.

Scientific revolutions and science education

In promoting science education, the structure of scientific knowledge should be carefully borne in mind, otherwise the investment of human and material resources might not bear the desired fruits. This writer holds a dynamic view, shared by many scientists and historians of science, that there is no permanent truth, and no permanent approach to truth, in science. Scientists observe natural phenomena, and formulate theories and paradigms to explain as many phenomena as possible. The greater the scope and rigour of an explanation, and the simpler its formulation, the stronger would be the theory. Theories derive from, and in turn constitute paradigms, which are overall views of a facet of nature. Each paradigm is necessarily imperfect, but enjoys the adherence of scientists because it provides satisfying explanations to those puzzles of nature most intriguing to the scientific community of the time. The history of science consists of the jolts and shocks of the falls and rises of paradigms, rather than just the gradual and progressive accumulation of facts and figures.

The displacement of one paradigm by another as the guiding principle of research in the scientific community is known as a “paradigm shift” or a “scientific revolution”. Examples are the revolutions of Newton, Boyle, Mendel, Einstein, and so on. Each paradigm recognises as valid and relevant a particular set of facts, theories, and methodologies, some of which the next paradigm might repudiate.

The long periods between “scientific revolutions”, when scientists accept the prevailing paradigm as the guiding framework for their research, and seek only to refine or extend the theoretical applications of that paradigm, or to search for practical, technological applications of it in economic life, are considered to be periods of “normal science”. During such periods, knowledge does grow by the accumulation of small bits and pieces, and when the outmoding of particular theoretical of practical applications of the paradigm by newer, more sophisticated applications serves to reinforce rather than reduce the acceptance by the scientific community of the basic paradigm itself.

This framework for the history of science, first put forward in the 1960’s by Thomas Kuhn of MIT, enjoys much support among historians and philosophers of science, and is gaining ground too in the social sciences.

When in everyday conversation we talk about scientific advances and the outdating of older knowledge, we might be referring to the development of technological applications, or to theoretical refinements of extensions, or to paradigm shifts - or we might be confusing the three levels. And it is this confusing that often contributes towards a mystification of science as something so elusive yet so mighty, so inaccessible to the uninitiated yet so powerful in the hands of the scientific elite - by the individuals of nations. In fact, popularisation of science and technology that succeeds only in imparting a little knowledge and not much else would likely increase the learner’s sense of awe about science, scientists, and scientifically advanced countries, and the sense of powerlessness about oneself and one’s own society.

Given the paradigmatic structure of scientific knowledge and the relativism inherent in scientific advances, science education, whether in school or in informal or non-formal settings, should aim not only at the transfer of specific facts and theories recognised as scientific under the prevailing paradigm, but also at the cultivation of scientific attitudes mind to accept challenges to the currently held scientific explanations of natural phenomena. But science education as it is practised in the world today all to often entails, at best, little more than training in the concepts and principles of existing “normal science”; and, and worst, simply passing on bits of scientific or technological information. This not infrequently results in dogmatic beliefs in such explanations or information as permanently proven and ultimately established, sanctified truths.

This is a static view of contemporary science which underlies such science education, and it assumes the scientific status quo as the heroic endpoint of an arduous but no longer relevant progress in the past. Such a close-ended view of science was derived from the almost religious faith optimism of the ascendant West of the nineteenth century - faith in the “ultimate triumph” of Western civilization of Science and Technology. This doctrinnaire attitude is not only unscientific, but also counter-productive. The analogy could be drawn with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that every closed system tends to run down and become less and less organised.

Scientific revolutions and indigenous cultural traditions

Furthermore, the Triumphs of Science and Technology school of thought also tends to equate modernism with Western civilisation, and to identify the successes of the prevailing scientific paradigms as proving the superiority of that civilization over the backwardness of the rest of the world. While there is no denying that the rise of the West in recent centuries has given shape to the modern world, and has brought many benefits as well as problems to all parts of the world, thoughtful and informed persons in the West itself are beginning to rise above the old prejudices. However, much of the Third World still live under, and suffer from the derogation, or self-derogation, derived from the old Western prejudices. While this kind of Western ethnocentrism pervades through many aspects of life and thought! it is in science education that it enjoys the most unspoken (and therefore) unchallenged entrenchment. The prevailing scientific paradigms are known to have grown out of Western civilisation; they are also assumed to be the heroic endpoint of scientific progress by science teachers and textbooks in Western and non-Western societies alike. Thus in the Third World, to the dogmatism of “normal science” are added the humiliation of the learner’s community and cultural tradition, a tradition that is considered, at least by implication, as backward, unscientific, and irrelevant to the future world of science and technology. Dogmatism and humiliation are not positive factors for education.

The science teachers and textbooks, whether in formal schooling or in informal/nonformal education, often imply that the native tradition had no science worth the name, and made no contribution whatever to modern science. This might be true to a large extent, if “science” is equated with the prevailing paradigms, and “technology” with “cutting edge technology” derived from such paradigms. But if a more ecumenical and dynamic view is taken of science and of scientific progress, it would be found that each indigenous civilization had its own paradigms to explain observed natural phenomena, which are more or less sophisticated and accurate descriptions and explanations of Nature. These paradigms were derived from the particular perceptiveness and wisdom of each cultural tradition, and cannot fail to be interesting and valuable in themselves, as anthropologists would know. They may yet have important contributions to make to the formulation of more powerful paradigms which scientists of a more ecumenical generation in the future might accept in place of the contemporary ones. This is not an advocacy of indigenous obscurantism against Western-derived science and technology, but rather a suggestion to look towards the future by looking also at the past, instead of focussing exclusively on the present.

The work of Joseph Needham, an English scientist and historian of science, has done much to elucidate the story of the development of science and technology in the Chinese past. It is significant that this pioneering work was done by a foreign scholar, because in China, as in so much of the Third World, it was assumed that the indigenous cultural tradition was scientifically backward and contained no history of science worthy of attention. For science education in the Third World to dismiss the scientific past of native cultures as nothing but pretty myths or despicable superstitions would be not only unhistorical, but also a disservice to the future development of worldwide science and to the cultural identity of the learner. What is needed is not to glory blindly in a native past, but to give science education in all countries an injection of relativism and ecumenism, which should come with the recognition of the paradigmatic structure of science and of scientific progress.

Paradigms and science pedagogy

In recent years, science educators in Britain, Australia, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, have been exploring the “naive” notions of children’s explanation of natural phenomena, in the belief that a teacher’s understanding of these “naive” notions could help improve the pedagogy to be used in teaching science to the children.

In fact, when children, or adult learners, who are uninitiated in modern science, grope about for explanations for natural phenomena, or to try to relate what they learn in science lessons to their own previous convictions about the world, they are humbly and unsophisticatedly trying to formulate their own paradigms. These paradigms are likely to be derived, in some way, from aspects of the learner’ s native cultural tradition. The teacher, unlike the learner, is more firmly entrenched in the prevailing paradigms. Unless previously sensitised to the value of such naive paradigm-making, he or she would fail to see the learner’s gropings around as a worthwhile scientific activity from which all concerned would learn more about nature, science, themselves, and their cultural tradition, but would rather tend to perceive such efforts as an undersireable falling away from the task at hand at inculcating contemporary science, and hence discourage the learners from their own formulations.

The bulk of science education in any setting should of course be the prevailing science accepted by the scientific community as such. But that should not be the exclusive content of that education, lest it excludes even the avenues for its own future growth. What is needed is a strong dosage of the history of science, a la Thomas Kuhn and Joseph Needham, to sensitise science teachers to the relativism and ecumenism which should be the part of the underlying assumptions of science education. Thus informed, science teachers may be able to teach science in a more open-ended style, and contribute more towards the scientific, technological, and cultural development of their societies.

(References to be supplied on request.)