Making the connection between science, values

BOWLING GREEN, O.—When people think of values and ethics in terms of science, they typically think of researchers’ responsibility to be honest and not falsify or steal data. But Dr. Margaret (Peg) Yacobucci, an assistant professor of geology, at Bowling Green State University, says there is another aspect to values in science that has gone largely unexplored.

Last week at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Denver, she spoke about the importance of acknowledging and making clear to students that, though mostly unexpressed, values are infused in the scientific process.

In a presentation titled “‘I’m a Scientist, not a Politician!’: How to Integrate Critical Thinking about Values into a General Education Geology Course (and Why You Should),” Yacobucci described her encounters with first-year students in her historical geology class for the BGeXperience: Vision and Values program.

“Science is performed by human beings who make research decisions based in part on their own value preferences. I would argue that a critical exploration of values within scientific disciplines should be considered part of a science course’s core content, not an ‘extra’ or a ‘gimmick,’” Yacobucci noted in an abstract of her presentation.

The philosophy behind the BGeXperience is to teach students not just the facts of the discipline but to give them a way to evaluate the knowledge they are receiving and to recognize the values implicit within it, along with their own values. “That’s going to be more important for them to remember than that, for example, fossil bacteria are 3.5 billion years old,” Yacobucci said, especially when most of the students in general education classes are not science majors.

“One of the reasons I got involved in BGeXperience was that I had already been talking to students about these issues,” she said. “This gave me a chance to take it a step further. As a colleague once said, ‘There is no such thing as a value-blind curriculum; there are only value-masked curricula.’ I agree with that, and I feel strongly that it is better to help students see that you’d better recognize and articulate the values you hold when making decisions about what to do research on and what to teach—especially when you’re making public policy based on those values.”

She also thinks instructors have a responsibility to teach students to question the values embedded in the textbooks they study.

“They should be asking why a textbook author is emphasizing this idea and not telling you much about another. I encourage them to probe behind the material,” she said, adding that faculty should also present other possibilities that are not included or are given short shrift.

Among the subjects she teaches at Bowling Green is historical geology. The course covers methods, concepts and principles for interpreting Earth’s history and the interactions of tectonic, biological and climatic processes through time.

In her historical geology class for BGeXperience, she focuses on several value-laden issues, including global climate change, evolution-creationism, Mars exploration, gradualism vs. catastrophism, the commercialization of vertebrate fossils and the cloning of extinct fossils.

Yacobucci reports that at first, students expressed reservations about discussing values and the scientific process instead of delving right into geology itself. By the end of the course, students said the “discussions about these real-world controversies greatly increased their interest in the geological topics we covered. Students left the class with a better sense of how scientists actually do their work, and of the non-scientific factors that affect scientific inquiry.” They also gained experience in critically evaluating and defending a position, distinguishing between opinions and supported arguments, and making choices based both on scientific information and consideration of the social consequences of their actions.

Yacobucci, who has served on the Faculty Advisory Committee for the BGeXperience program, noted that assessment has helped improve the teaching process.

“I think it’s important that we retool our curriculum to raise students’ awareness of how values are an inherent part of everything we do,” she said. “It’s better to recognize that than to pretend they aren’t there.”

(Posted November 17, 2004 )