Scientific Inquiry: Beyond Merely Arriving at the Truth

Johnnies want to know why we believe what we believe.

The Admissions Office was given a special inside tour of the labs with new Director of Labs, John Balwit.

Thoughts about the St. John’s College Lab Program  by Tutor Llyd Wells:

In the modern world, there are so many things we know without knowing how we know them. We know the earth goes around the sun. We know atoms include subatomic particles called electrons. We know the heart pumps blood. We know DNA is a molecular basis of heredity. But why do we believe these things? In most cases, the answer is fairly simple: we believe them because someone told us to. We believe them on the strength of authority.

At St. John’s, we aren’t satisfied to know just what the truth is. We want to know why we believe it. We want to have reasons other than the authority of a textbook, teacher or webpage for what we accept as true. We also want to have deeper insight into these truths, into how we arrived at them, into what they do and do not mean, and even into the possibility that, like so many “truths” before them, they may prove ultimately to be mistaken – although perhaps in interesting and fruitful ways.
This is a major project of all the classes, Seminar, Language and Music no less than Laboratory and Mathematics. In Laboratory, however, we are specifically considering supposed truths about the physical world, including living things. Many but not all of these subject matters fall under the modern purview of science. In our view, however, a lot of today’s science education fails to instill deep understandings of the facts it presents. As a result, it often alienates creative and critical students who require reasons for believing things, while also encouraging in other students a kind of passivity antithetical to scientific inquiry, a passivity born of the expectation that they merely accept facts rather than deeply understand them – much less challenge them.

Another risk of modern science education is how specialized it has become. This specialization pertains not just to fields and subfields within scientific disciplines. It also includes a lack of attention to the broader human implications and consequences of scientific inquiry. We think this division between scientific and humanistic inquiry unnecessary, false and dangerous.
Thus, in our work here, we endeavor to understand why we believe the things we believe. We read many of the original texts. We repeat many of the original experiments. Our students spend the better part of a semester working out the arguments supporting, and then overturning, the geocentric understanding of the solar system. They measure the charge and mass of an electron, just like Millikan did in 1909. They read William Harvey’s 17th century account of the heart as a pump and investigate some of his evidence with their own dissections. In the senior year they repeat versions of experiments which led to the discovery of DNA – and then conclude by examining how some of the at first dimly-seen implications of those mid-20th century experiments are revolutionizing 21st century biology.

In all of this, our goal is not simply to arrive at accepted truths, but to understand and be critical of how we arrived at those truths. At the same time, we also always invite our students to think broadly about the assumptions and implications of whatever our understanding happens to be – whether we are making sense of the geocentric world of antiquity or today’s heliocentric one. How do we understand our world now? Why have intelligent, thoughtful human beings understood it differently before? How might we understand it differently in the future? We believe such questions are important to all aspects of human inquiry, as relevant to tomorrow’s poets as to tomorrow’s scientists. Not only that, but at St. John’s, we even believe that tomorrow’s poets may also be tomorrow’s scientists.

To hear more from other faculty members about why and how we study three years of science at St. John’s College, click on the interview link below:

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