Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Indoctrination and Science Education

  • Darrell P. Rowbottom
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_39


Can students be trained to be excellent scientists purely, or failing that mainly, by means of indoctrination? And if not, what role, if any, should indoctrination play in science education? These are the main questions discussed in this entry. They are epistemic and pragmatic, rather than moral, in character.

Two preliminary questions are crucial to answer effectively, however. First, to what does “indoctrination” refer in the present context? Second, to what extent is indoctrination possible to avoid? In the remainder of this section, these are tackled in turn.

“Indoctrination” might conjure up images of cults using tactics such as sleep deprivation in order to seduce the vulnerable, or of a Bond villain using a brainwashing machine to acquire henchmen. But such a narrow construal of the term is unsuitable in the present entry, which is more concerned with practices and approaches that are typically legally permissible, and are sometimes employed, in contemporary classrooms and lecture halls. So it is better to understand “indoctrination” to refer to teaching, and hence learning, via a highly authoritative, stereotypically transmission-oriented, process. Most notably, absent in such a process is any open critical engagement by the learner with the teacher, and critical engagement with the claims made by the teacher is discouraged, “off-limits,” in the educational context (although it might occur nevertheless, e.g., surreptitiously). No exploration or self-discovery on the learner’s part need be encouraged, or expected, either. (For more on different views of indoctrination, see Snook 1972a and 1972b.)

But can indoctrination, construed in the broad way described above, be avoided altogether? Surely the authority of the teacher on some factual claims, at least, must be sacrosanct? It would be a mistake to think of the matter in an “all or nothing” way. “To indoctrinate or not to indoctrinate?” is not (necessarily) the question. A better one is “When, and to what extent, should teachers indoctrinate?” or, more precisely, “To what extent, and when, should teachers explicitly rely on authority in advancing claims as true, and suppress objections?” As will be shown in the next section, it’s crucial to bear in mind the proper epistemic role of testimony, both inside and outside the classroom, in attempting to answer such questions.


As Peter Lipton (1998, p. 1) notes, the importance of testimony can hardly be underestimated:

Mundane beliefs – such as that the earth is round or that you think with your brain – almost invariably depend on testimony, and even quite personal facts – such as your birthday or the identity of your biological parents – can only be known with the help of others. Science is no refuge from the ubiquity of testimony. At least most of the theories that a scientist accepts, she accepts because of what others say.

Indeed, even autodidacts rely heavily on testimonial products produced by others, such as books, articles, and websites. And to the extent that observation is theory-laden, the observation statements people make, and hence believe to be true, typically depend on testimony too. Even the author’s belief that he sits at a desk as he writes is dependent on testimony, in so far as his concept of “desk” derives from instances of others showing him what counts as a desk.

Hence testimony cannot be avoided in the educational process, and teachers cannot avoid being testifiers. But even assuming that testifying on something is presenting oneself as an authority on the matter to some extent, many interesting authority-related questions about best teaching practice remain. For example, there is scope for a teacher to avoid testifying on some matters, while actively testifying on others. Consider, for example, secondary school students conducting a simple laboratory experiment in which it is hoped that they will see for themselves that Ohm’s law – V=IR – (approximately) holds. A teacher might decide to avoid testifying about the law, at least in the first instance, although she might actively testify about how to set up and conduct the experiment, and intervene to help any students having difficulties doing so. Moreover, she might avoid directly testifying about the approximate truth of the law even after the students complete the experiment. She might instead offer testimony about the testimony of others, namely the scientific community, concerning the law. (This may include explaining what scientists say about results that superficially appear to violate the law, e.g., that the resistance of circuit components is temperature dependent.) Such meta-testimony – testimony about the testimony of others – might be used to indicate some deference, on the teacher’s part, to the authority of the scientific community. She might explain to the class her belief in the reliability, or probable truth, of the community’s findings concerning empirical laws.

But is such an approach right? Should one defer to the dominant scientific views of the time in which one finds oneself? And why? Granting that testimony must play some central role in science education doesn’t answer these questions, which we’ll tackle, with reference to the work of Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, in what follows. For more on testimony from a contemporary philosophical perspective, Gelfert (2014) is recommended.

Kuhn Versus Popper on Criticism and Dogmatism in Science Education

It’s plausible that one’s account of good science education will depend to some extent on one’s view on what constitutes good science. The reason is simple. Good science education should produce good scientists, or at least have a high probability of producing good scientists (relative to other possible ways of educating scientists). That is, assuming that the students involved have the capacity, or potential, to become good scientists. So let’s look at what two of the most influential philosophers of science in the twentieth century – Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper – said about scientific method, and resultantly science education.

Thomas Kuhn took science education – especially in his own time, in the USA – to centrally involve encouraging dogmatic commitment to the status quo:

[S]cientific education is… conducted through textbooks… [T]he student… is seldom either asked to attempt trial research projects or exposed to the immediate products of research done by others – to, that is, the professional communications that scientists write for their peers. Collections of “source readings” play a negligible role in scientific education. Nor is the science student encouraged to read the historical classics of his field… [S]cientific education remains a relatively dogmatic initiation into a pre-established problem-solving tradition that the student is neither invited nor equipped to evaluate. (Kuhn 1963, pp. 350–351)

It may be of some surprise to modern readers that Kuhn took this approach to be good, rather than bad, for science:

Scientific education inculcates… a deep commitment to a particular way of viewing the world and of practicing science… By defining for the individual scientist both the problems available for pursuit and the nature of acceptable solutions to them, the commitment is actually constitutive of research… In addition, commitment has a second and largely incompatible research role. Its very strength and unanimity with which the professional group subscribes to it provides the individual scientist with an immensely sensitive detector of the trouble spots from which significant innovations … and almost inevitably educed. (Kuhn 1963, p. 349.

Later, Kuhn (1970a, p. 5) even went so far as to declare: “It is precisely the abandonment of critical discourse that marks the transition to a science.” The penultimate quotation gives some indication of why Kuhn thought of this, but in order to understand his perspective more clearly, it is useful to grasp his view of how science typically does and, indeed should, proceed. (Kuhn derived methodological norms from historical descriptions. His stance on science education was similar: he sought to find an explanation of the status quo, as he saw it, in terms of its utility.)

To put it simply – for more detail and further references, see Rowbottom (2011) and note especially that the discussion here makes reference only to theories, although paradigms involve considerably more – Kuhn thought that science involves two key phases, namely normal science and extraordinary science. He thought that normal science is the most distinctive part of science and that dogmatism about the theories of the day is crucial, for scientists, in that phase. Why? Because strong commitment to theories encourages scientists to work hard to see what can be achieved with them, over an extended period, and also encourages them to assume that any failures they encounter should not be blamed on the theories. So dogmatism makes science resistant to theory change and also, for related reasons, likely to expose the limits of existing theories. This is why Kuhn compares normal science to puzzle solving. Puzzles are defined by rules. If a crossword puzzle requires a six letter word, for example, one cannot use a seven letter word instead. To do so would be to fail to engage with the puzzle.

Extraordinary science, on the other hand, is reserved for those periods where repeated failures to solve puzzles come to be blamed on theories. Kuhn is vague about when exactly this should happen. He also admits that it couldn’t happen if every scientist were completely dogmatic. He mentions, for example, that changes in a field are often fomented by relative newcomers and that older scientists may be perfectly reasonable to resist such changes come what may.

So that’s Kuhn’s view. Good science involves long periods of normal science, punctuated by occasional and relatively short periods of extraordinary science. And the periods of normal science are enabled by dogmatism. Thus suppressing and discouraging criticism of standard existing theories is an important part of science education. (For more on the educational aspect, see Matthews 2004.)

Criticisms of Kuhn’s view of science have been many and varied. For example, some have denied that the pattern he sees in the history of science exists in general (even if they concede that it was present in some areas and episodes that Kuhn studied). But more interesting for present purposes is whether such a pattern is genuinely required for, or is even sufficient for, good science. And to probe this, one need not deny that normal science – or something approximating it – is a real phenomenon. Popper, for instance, admitted the existence of normal science but took a dim view of it:

‘Normal’ science, in Kuhn’s sense, exists. It is the activity of the non-revolutionary, or more precisely, not-too-critical professional: of the science student who accepts the ruling dogma of the day; who does not wish to challenge it; and who accepts a new revolutionary theory only if almost everybody else is ready to accept it—if it becomes fashionable by a kind of bandwagon effect… In my view the ‘normal’ scientist, as Kuhn describes him, is a person one ought to be sorry for … He has been taught in a dogmatic spirit: he is a victim of indoctrination. He has learned a technique which can be applied without asking for the reason why … (Popper 1970, p. 52)

Popper’s view was that scientists should typically be open to renouncing their theories and should spend much of their time attacking – and trying to refute – said theories. On a related note, he thought that good scientific theories were typically improbable, due to their simplicity and scope. In short, for Popper (1970, p. 55), there should be no “domination of a ruling dogma over considerable periods… [because] the method of science is, normally, that of bold conjectures and criticism.”

We cannot hope to resolve the dispute between Kuhn and Popper here. However, it is worth noting that both assume that almost all scientists should be dogmatic, or all scientists should be critical, at any given point in time. (For Popper, almost all should be critical at any point; theories should be cut slack only in relatively early stages of development. For Kuhn, almost all should be dogmatic in normal science, and almost all should be critical and try to proliferate alternative theories in extraordinary science.) Neither seriously considers the possibility that good science can involve a balance of dogmatic and critical practitioners, or a balance of scientists performing critical (or offensive) and dogmatic (or defensive) functions – that is, among other functions. This possibility is articulated and defended in Rowbottom (2011). The basic idea is that proper division of labor between individuals with different dispositions can benefit the scientific community. For example, the presence of someone who dogmatically defends his favorite theory come what may does not prevent scientists as a whole rejecting said theory. And his activities may benefit science in the event that he discovers something new using his theory, even if that is improbable. His presence might help the community to hedge its bets, so to speak.

On this picture, good science education partly involves exploring how a prospective scientist might best contribute to the enterprise of science as a whole. Again, the central idea is relatively simple. Different scientists do radically different things. And just as some experimentalists would make relatively poor theoreticians, and vice versa, so some theoreticians excel in creative activities, e.g., generating interesting new theories and models, whereas others excel in destructive ones, e.g., finding the flaws in the theories and models of others. And so on.

Even if this is correct, however, it may not be possible to split students into different groups and give them different treatment “ahead of time,” so some difficult choices seem forced. Consider, for instance, the proper role of the history of science in science education. (See Brush 1974; Siegel 1979; Matthews 2015, Ch. 4.) For Kuhn, it’s a good thing when “Partly by selection and partly by distortion, the scientists of earlier ages are implicitly represented as having worked upon the same set of fixed problems and in accordance with the same set of fixed canons that the most recent revolution in scientific theory and method has made seem scientific” (Kuhn 1970b, p. 138). And anyone who has studied science, and subsequently the history of science, will know that this happens to a considerable extent in science education. Even at university level, for example, the famous gold foil experiment conducted by Geiger and Marsden, under the direction of Rutherford, is typically presented as having showed that all the positive charge in (gold) atoms is concentrated in a central nucleus. The reality is quite different, in many respects. For one thing, Rutherford considered the possibility that positively charged alpha particles could be “slingshot” by areas of concentrated negative charge and preferred the view that the nucleus was negatively charged at one point. In short, the heavy metal foil experiments weren’t nearly so decisive as they are almost always presented as having been. For the details, and supporting quotations, see Rowbottom (In Progress, Ch. 4).

Popper’s view, by contrast, is compatible with – and highly suggestive of – the idea that studying past scientific controversies would be useful, and proper, for fostering a critical spirit and sharpening critical ability.

Clearly one cannot take both routes. But there are middle roads worth considering. For example, one might typically use heavily simplified history, and admit this explicitly, and occasionally use more detailed historical case studies to allow students to consider how, and why, one theory won out over another. (Scientists are not typically historians and philosophers of science, and this may be a good thing.) One might decide to “distort” somewhat by downplaying the social factors that were responsible for theory change, but perhaps shouldn’t have been.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lingnan UniversityHong KongChina