Modest Claims in
University of Toronto
In 1969, I remember, as an undergraduate, reading a passage from
Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter House Five (1969, pg.114-5). In the
passage, the Trafalmadorians, those prophetic standpoint theorists,
describe the limitations of human perception. From their standpoint,
we are described as beings who for all intents and purposes have
our heads encased in steel spheres, while tied to moving railway
cars, unable to move our heads and able only to see by looking
through one eye down the barrel of "six feet of pipe".
Vonnegut sums up our sorry state thusly: Whatever poor Billy saw
through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, "That's
life." As I read this book, I was also in the midst of completing
an undergraduate degree in Biology and Psychology and being trained
in the ways of the scientific method and empiricism. But this
passage felt like the right kind of challenge to the ears of the
closet epistemologist I was and the 21st century epistemologist
I was becoming.1
In my thirty plus years in the academy, I have come through
modernism, Marxism, feminism, structuralism, postmodernism, social
constructionism and constructivism to name a few intellectual
cycles. Through all, I have never lost the passion both for trying
to understand how we know what we know and for wanting to judge
the quality of that knowledge. I am now, by credential, a sociologist
of education who likes to ponder the changes that have occurred
in the social assumptions we have about the quality of knowledge
we encounter and, in turn, how we judge the reliability of these
knowledges. As these ideas concern science and science education,
I am especially interested in the ways in which the social constructionist
movements in the social sciences and constructivism in education
have begun affecting our perceptions of science knowledge.2
The trick, I think, in navigating these epistemological rapids
is not to get hung up on positivist shorelines or plunge recklessly
down some relativist Niagara Falls. Most teachers, science and
non-science alike, know little of these controversies and discussions.
This is understandable. Most teachers do not have the luxury to
spend years pondering these issues and have not likely spent much
time on them in their teacher training. Yet, I would argue that
they and their students deal with the fallout from these debates
and social trends just the same. At this point most of us have
become suspicious of the tera-wads of information flying at us
daily. Information, sometimes cynically manipulated, masquerades
as knowledge changing rapidly and often in contradictory fashion.
Study after study appear, with the latter appearing to contradict
their predecessors positions until finally people throw up their
hands, give up on trying to evaluate the `facts' at hand, and
retreat to comfortable emotional or political positions. As I
write this I am listening to a radio commentator who reports that
70% of people surveyed believe X, 65% believe Y and 75% don't
believe in surveys. The final numbers reported, it seems, deliver
the relativist coup de grace to any listener trying to work with
It is one thing to understand that self-interest can play a
part in the creation of research and in the `facts" that
emerge from this research and another to try to make informed
evaluations - let alone to try and teach others to do the same.
There are sinister sides to these issues as well. Gelbspan (1998)
has chronicled the way in which oil and gas companies mounted
huge public relations campaigns designed to promote the positions
of a discredited minority of scientists who challenged the accuracy
of the majority of scientists whose research has emphasized the
causes, dangers and consequences of global warming. They did this
because they knew that the media, as players in what Tannen (1999)
calls "The Argument Culture," always looks to present
oppositional sides to issues. In this case, the companies' tactic
has succeeded because Gelbspan observes that now whenever global
warming is presented in the media one or more of these dissenting
opinions is usually presented as well. The net effect has been
to generate confusion and skepticism about science and diffuse
action against the oil and gas companies.
Skepticism as an agent that immobilizes our ability to evaluate
knowledge claims has replaced skepticism to be used as an evaluative
tool. Many of us are wondering how to help teachers deal with
this new epistemological terrain. John Novak (2002) recommends
focusing on the development of leadership that invites dealing
with philosophical differences in ways that promote integrity
and ever-deepening democracy in all facets of life. Richard Bond
(2002) has suggested that in a postmodern context we should be
teaching teachers to expand their "problem-solving capabilities"
and "increase tolerance for ambiguity." I would agree
that these are important dimensions. I would add that we must,
in professing education, not only invite teachers to grapple with
the slippery terrain on which all knowledge now seems to perch,
but also invite teachers, and in turn students, to pursue a modest
wisdom in these matters.
To me, professing education needs always to involve first, challenging
students "realities"? i.e., those formulations we make
as we ride the rail cars and peer through our individual and collective
pipes. Second, it involves introducing an element of epistemological
chaos into the ways we can think about knowing and knowledge.
Finally, and this is certainly the hardest part, it involves presenting
ways of thinking about our post positivist and post postmodernist
worlds that allow for a materially-based and what Helen Longino
(1990; 2000) calls a "modest" (but definitely not relativist)
epistemology from which active teaching and learning makes sense.
This last part requires the development of a wisdom that can coexist
with a world that includes, among other things: the existence
of socially, not personally determined, standpoints; material
reality _ for example, bombs that explode no matter what we think
of the science behind them; and the possibility of contradictory
fact and theory that can be incommensurable and apparently accurate.
Novak, John. (2002). Inviting educational leadership: Fulfilling
potential and applying ethical perspectives to the educational
process. London: Pearson Education.
Bond, Richard. (2002). Teaching teachers teaching: The postmodern
apprenticeship. Brock Education, Vol. 11(2), Spring 2002, 73-80.
Vonnegut, Kurt. (1969). Slaughter-house five. New York: Dell
Longino, H. E. (1990). Science as social knowledge: values and
objectivity in scientific inquiry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton
Longino, H. E. (2000). Towards an epistemology for biological
pluralism. In R. Creath & J. Maienschein (Eds.), Biology and
Epistemology (pp. 261-286). Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge
Gelbspan, Ross. (1998) The heat is on: The climate crisis, the
cover-up, the prescription (Updated Edition).
Perseus Publishing. Tannen, Deborah. (1999). The Argument Culture:
Stopping America's War of Words. New York: Ballantine Books
1. In a parallel, serendipitous and surely Vonnegutian moment,
I was reading this, when I was also living down the hall from
the real-life son of Bernard V. O'Hare, Vonnegut's war buddy
who figures prominently in the text and in Vonnegut's own war
experiences. You might say that this added a dose of "reality"
to my reading of the text.
2. In the social sciences this discussion has been heated and
has taken the form of "science wars" with both sides
facing off in traditional positivism vs. social relativism debates.
Within science education these issues have taken the form of
debates and discussions about what is the `nature of science.'