Science, Power, and Diversity in Honors
Truth and knowledge--is it out there to be found or do we somehow create it? Do egg and sperm "stories" reflect hierarchic dualisms prevalent in western patriarchal thinking? What do money and politics have to do with research on the "gay gene?" How do traditional claims of value-neutrality and objectivity affect how society views science?
Honors students now have the opportunity to explore these and other questions, thanks to a new course that examines how science operates as a powerful social and political force. In spring 2004 the Honors program introduced a revamped version of one of its core classes in the natural sciences. This course, entitled "Science, Power and Diversity," is team-taught by Bonnie Baxter, Associate Professor of Biology, and Bridget Newell, Associate Professor of Philosophy. These two professors initiated the changes to the program's science curriculum in order to ensure that students would be exposed to seminal scientific issues of the twentieth century and the present--issues that include the language and values of science, the status of women and minorities in science, concepts of race and diversity in science, portrayals of science in the media, and science as a force for social change.
Drs. Newell and Baxter contribute expertise in and enthusiasm for their respective fields, as well as a genuine interest in the perspective of each other and of their individual students. As Dr. Newell noted, "When addressing some of these philosophical issues in prior classes and via my own reading I always wondered, 'What would a scientist think of this?' In this class we do have a scientist present, so we're all in a better position to expand our perspectives and understanding." The discussion format of the class allows students to reflect and debate with their peers about the value and potential problems associated with modern science. In-class reflections encourage students to consider their own opinions and reactions to the course material, as well as brainstorm potential solutions and positive changes that may be made in society's conception of science.
Laboratory work underscores the methods and processes of science and gives students hands-on experience in genetics, the backdrop field of diversity. Dr. Baxter, whose research focuses on genetics, biochemistry and enzymology, says, "Exploring the philosophy of science, through the lens of feminism and multiculturalism, has made me more introspective in my practice of science. This interdisciplinary team-teaching experience and the discussions with Honors students have impacted all of my other scientific endeavors."
In the accompanying pictures, Honors students get some hands-on experience measuring the cranial capacity of various species as a way testing the methodology of a well-known experiment that made certain claims about correspondences between brain size and levels of intelligence.