19 October 2005

Teaching Alchemical Thinking

Another thought that diverted me from a linear reading of Bell’s biography of Lavoisier:

Sir Francis Bacon laid out the case for experimental validation of theories in the Novum Organum in 1620. Its importance was grasped almost immediately. For example, Sir Thomas Browne exploited it in his debunking of numerous popular beliefs, published as the Pseudodoxia Epidemica starting in 1646. (The link is to the final 1672 edition.) And yet, as protoscientists like Boyle, Glauber, and Newton extended and absorbed the results of laboratory work, they still persisted in casting things in the framework of traditional alchemy. Why did so much alchemical thinking persist into the age of experiment?

Bell notes that, while alchemy provided a scheme for ordering and understanding the very diverse facts of chemical experimentation, it also mandated a philosophical stance in which the real world of the lab is but a pale image of underlying truth. Experiments were illustrative, rather than confrontational. Bell quotes a French historian, Robert Halleux:
“In alchemy, the laboratory has no crucial role. The function of the practice is first and foremost to illustrate the truth of the theory. The success of a procedure demonstrates to the operator that he has understood the ancients well. The quality of the practice is the direct consequence of the level of understanding of the theory. For if the experiment fails, the failure does not weaken the theory.”
(“Pratique industrielle et chimie philosophiqe de l’Antiquité au XVII siecle,” L’Actuelité chimique, January-February 1987, p. 19.)

As I read that, I had a vision of almost every K-12 science lab I’d ever been in, as either student or teacher.

It’s not like I don’t understand why. There’s not enough time in the school day to be able to spend much time on a single lab experiment. There’s not enough time in the school year to spend exploring a topic by real experimentation. There’s not enough money to provide the kind of equipment you’d need. There’s no place to do it that doesn’t have to get cleared up within the hour for the next class. There’s just no way. Lab science in school is like music appreciation – watching the performance, but never learning how to handle the instruments.

But is it any wonder that, when we’re done, the kids come out with an understanding of the scientific process that’s, well, 16th century?


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