Teaching Philosophy and HPS to Science Students Geoffrey Cantor

Geoffrey Cantor

Division of History and Philosophy of Science

School of Philosophy

University of Leeds



  1. The problem introduced


Most teaching at university level is directed to the specific subject in which the student will graduate, which is usually one of the subjects that the student has studied at A-level. This generalisation needs to be expanded to include the proliferation of two-subject degree schemes, but their existence does not significantly affect the following argument. The present discussion concentrates on those students whose backgrounds do not prepare them adequately for the subject(s) they study at university, in particular those students who undertake some courses in the humanities but whose training has been largely or exclusively in the sciences.[2] A few students attempt this switch when they enter university. For example, undergraduates who possess A-levels entirely in the sciences who enter a course of study in, say, Philosophy, or perhaps a two-subject degree in Philosophy and Physics or HPS and Biology – such combinations being well-established at Leeds. Moreover, many science students register for an occasional module in the humanities; since this is a far more familiar pattern than a complete change from the sciences to the humanities, it will be my main concern in this essay. Thus many Leeds’ students who proceed to a science degree may take just one or two modules in either Philosophy or HPS, either as options or electives. For example,

A significant number of science students enrol on one or more of our first-level Philosophy or HPS modules;

The level 2 module “History and Philosophy of Physics” is a requirement for Theoretical Physics students and an option for other Physics students;

As part the degree schemes in both engineering and computing students can take modules dealing with ethical issues relating to their main subject.


In this discussion I shall identify some of the problems facing science students who take occasional modules in the humanities as part of their degree. In the fourth section I shall offer a few tentative suggestions how you might adapt your teaching to such science students. Although I shall be concerned primarily with the experience of science students taking humanities courses, it should also be noted that the teaching situation may be further complicated by classes being ‘mixed,’ in the sense that students from very different backgrounds attend identical lectures and tutorials. Thus, in a first-year Philosophy class we may find a Chemistry major sitting next to a single-subject Philosopher and a student taking a Joint-Honours scheme in English and French.


At the outset I wish to reject the crude stereotype that portrays science students as illiterate and culturally inept. By contrast, I am greatly impressed by a small proportion of science and engineering students who possess broad skills and interests and who experience little difficulty in engaging a humanities topic. They are intelligent, highly-motivated and possess enquiring minds – such students usually thrive when taking an introductory Philosophy or HPS class and, I expect, they would flourish if offered any intellectually-challenging topic. There is also a rather larger group of science students who studied mixed A-levels at school and will therefore have been exposed to at least one arts, humanities or social science subject alongside their science A-levels. One of the pleasing trends over the past decade or two has been the increase in the proportion of such students; the figure now stands at about 10%.


However, many science students – doubtless the majority – do not possess any significant educational experience outside the sciences and they usually encounter substantial difficulties when they take their first – and often only – module in the humanities. In the next section I shall try to identify some of these difficulties. I can cite my own experience as supporting evidence, since my A-levels were entirely in science subjects. Indeed, when at school I shared with many of my peers the (utterly depressing) view that science students are innately superior to those taking humanities subjects, and that the sciences hold the key to the future. Only after obtaining a PhD in Physics did I change direction and commence working in the History and Philosophy of Science. I found that the transition from Physics to HPS both difficult and painful. During my teaching career I have been particularly aware that many science students encounter not dissimilar difficulties and I will now attempt to identify the main ones.



  1. What are the differences?


We are familiar with the significant differences that exist between the skills and intellectual demands of different academic subjects. Although such differences are often apparent between subjects within a single faculty, they tend to be far more marked when we compare subjects from different continents on the academic map. For example, although departments of English Literature make far greater demands of their students to appreciate and develop skills connected with literary style than do Philosophy departments, yet science departments place very little stress on essay skills, although here too there are significant variations. Thus Biology students are usually expected to write a small number of essays during their undergraduate studies and even submit essays for degree assessment. By contrast, Physics students are rarely – if ever – required to write an essay for a Physics module.


Such differences do not, of course, appear only at university level but are to a larger extent formed and fostered at school. Here we see similar patterns, the most obvious being the different experience and preparation in essay-writing skills among those taking humanities subjects when compared with their peers in the sciences. But there is another significant factor that operates at school level, although it is becoming less influential. This is the arts-science divide and its implications for student choice at GCSE and A-level. While the number of students taking mixed A-levels is on the increase (as noted above), the ‘Two Cultures’ mentality is still prevalent in most schools. Limitations imposed by the timetable and the competing demands of the various departments[3]often force pupils to confront the diverging paths offered by the sciences and the humanities as one of their main choices. (I won’t introduce the social science options since they fall outside the scope of this essay.) Barriers are erected between these areas at an early and formative stage in a student’s career. One implication is that many young people see themselves as either science orhumanities students and thereby accept the ‘Two Cultures’ thesis. They often become increasingly unwilling to engage subjects on the other side of the great divide.


While schools play an important role in shaping attitudes to the various subject areas, other more basic factors already in play may receive confirmation and expression at school. Each pupil brings a set of attitudes that are framed by background, experience and personality. Thus, for example, having a scientist in the family may impel a student towards (or away from) studying the sciences at school and university. Again, only the exceptional student from a home where books are lacking is likely to be strongly attracted to English Literature. Public images of the scientist may also exert an influence; for example, it has been argued that such negative images as the male white-coated nerd frequently portrayed in cartoons deter students – particularly women – from science. Less easy to summarise are influence of personal factors, most obviously the student’s social class and gender. As Liam Hudson and others have argued, there may be psychological reasons why women veer away from science and towards humanities subjects, while male students find science much more congenial. However, such gender stereotypes have been severely challenged over the past twenty years and an increasing number of women are now taking science A-levels and science courses at university. Nevertheless, some science subjects – most notably Physics and Chemistry – still recruit far fewer women than men and thus remain the bastions of gender bias. Whatever the reasons, many people feel strongly impelled towards the sciences and against the humanities.


The point of this detour has been to argue that most students enter university possess a strong predilection for some subjects and against others. In particular, science students often perceive themselves as having chosen science and thereby positively rejected humanities subjects. Moreover, whatever antipathy they possess towards the humanities is accentuated by their lack of the necessary experience, knowledge and skills to operate in an area in which they have not been trained. In a strong sense students are self-selected in opting to choose the sciences over the humanities or vice versa. If this is so then we need to explore the situation facing a science student who – out of choice or necessity – finds him or herself taking a humanities class. In the final section I shall address the question facing the teacher of how to engage such students in a Philosophy or HPS course.



  1. Strengths and weaknesses 


  1. A)Lack of Confidence. The foremost problem faced by many science students taking humanities modules is a lack of confidence. In taking such modules they are aware that they are crossing the great divide that separates the “Two Cultures”. For a minority this can be a liberating experience because they feel confident in engaging topics in which they possess some background experience but have been forced largely to ignore in favour of their highly-focused studies in science. There are also a few science students who rebel against their scientific training and are keen to move to the humanities because they think it offers a more congenial – and possibly less-demanding – alternative. This latter group poses particular difficulties since it contains some who adapt well to the new mode of study while others founder and become increasingly disillusioned with the whole university experience.


However for the majority the experience of taking a humanities module proves a difficult experience that accentuates their lack of confidence. Perhaps realising that they lack an adequate background in the new subject they may feel disoriented, resentful and suspicious of the lecturer and the intellectual fare offered. Trying to appear ‘cool’ to their peers some members of the class may pose as uninterested – exhibiting body language, perhaps a slouch, which conveys their distance from the proceedings. Some firmly believe in the intellectual superiority of science and thus consider the humanities to be ‘a doddle’.[4] Such aggressive attitudes arise from a lack of confidence in moving from the safe and familiar study of science to an unfamiliar form of education that has often been ridiculed and dismissed by their peers and sometimes by their teachers.


Science students are being trained to enter the scientific community through the standard school and university courses leading from GCSEs and A-levels to the degree of BSc and a career in science via a research degree. Although there has been much discussion of how science can provide a broad liberal education that would benefit those who do not opt for a career in science, the curriculum is usually directed to training the relatively small proportion of students who will enter scientific research in universities or industry. It is therefore highly oriented to providing such knowledge and skills that will be relevant for a career in research. The main forms of teaching are lectures (which provides the basic knowledge), examples classes (for problem solving) and laboratory classes.


Implicitly – rather than explicitly – most science students imbibe attitudes about their science, which they may contrast with the humanities. Very rarely are such students offered the opportunity to reflect on the nature of science or its impact on society, such diversions usually being clearly labelled as extra-curricular activities that do not impinge on the serious business of science education. Again, since these anomalous subjects are rarely taught by science lecturers, students consider them to fall outside the normal domain of science. Thus to take a module in, say, the Philosophy of Science, usually requires students to leave the safety of the science buildings and enter an alien part of the campus there to encounter lecturers whom they do not know from their science courses. All these factors accentuate the divide between the sciences and the humanities and the difficulty that science students may experience in taking a module in an alien area.


In the next few paragraphs I identify some of the skills that science students are often considered to lack. Science students are particularly aware of skills since their training places great emphasis on learning practical skills, ranging from mathematical skills (such as integrating complex equations and drawing graphs) to laboratory practices (e.g. performing a titration or reading the trace on an oscilloscope). Yet the extensive knowledge and skills that they possess may not be appropriate in, say, a Philosophy course and they readily appreciate that other skills – ones which they do not possess – are required in order to participate fully and gain a high mark.


  1. B)Problems with reading. Although some scientists are avid – and wide – readers, many are not. Indeed, certain science subjects – especially Physics and Chemistry – may be particularly attractive to students with good numerical skills but who feel less competent with words. They may also possess a significantly lower level of literary than non-science students and/or a slow reading speed. However, Philosophy, HPS and most other humanities subjects require students to immerse themselves in books. The prospect of reading a book from cover to cover over a few days will be perceived as impossible by many science students, especially those with low reading speeds, but be accepted as perfectly normal by a student from an English Literature background. Indeed, the prospect of reading large quantities of material may prove very threatening to the science student who has been trained to deal with mathematical formulae and scientific arguments but who has not been taught how to evaluate a text.


  1. C)Note-taking. The student’s experience of note-taking will depend on the particular science studied. If we take Physics as an extreme case, then the student will have little experience beyond taking down formulae or having these reproduced on a handout. The lecturer in Philosophy or HPS can – perhaps should – provide handouts containing the main steps in the argument and definitions of any technical terms. However, science students are often face the difficulty of knowing what to do in lectures. Should they take down every point made by the lecturer, or should they completely forego note-taking? Their experience provides little guidance since they are not used to the types of narrative deployed by, say, lecturers in Philosophy. They are also unclear about which points made by the lecturer are important.


  1. D)Inexperience of writing essays. Again this involves skills that many science students find unfamiliar, difficult and intimidating. Indeed, their decision to pursue a science subject may be explicitly linked to difficulties in producing pieces of extended writing. Thus when taking humanities courses science students often initially enquire about the form of assessment and are apt to express reservations when told that one or more pieces or written work are required. Not only will they have to engage a subject in which they have little or no experience, but they will be required to produce written work, often in the form of an essay. The prospect of essay writing may evoke fear and uncertainty since many science students will have no conception of what is involved or how to begin the process of essay writing.


  1. E)Lack of verbal skills. In science education little emphasis is placed on verbal skills. In some science subjects – most notably Physics – tutorials are principally classes devoted to problem-solving where the exchange between tutor and tutee is confined to mathematical procedures with a minimum of verbal intercourse. (As an undergraduate I remember having just two such tutorials over a three-year period and I succeeded in remaining utterly silent on both sessions.) Science students often lack the confidence to speak in public and are also unfamiliar with the pedagogic norms in humanities departments. For example, one difficulty often encountered by science students in tutorials (but also in their reading and written work) is the open-ended nature of the discussion and the tendency to explore the strengths and weaknesses of a philosophical position. The ‘game’ played in a Philosophy tutorial may therefore seem alien to students who have no comparable experience in their science courses.


  1. F)Although the preceding paragraphs have identified some of the problems that science students may face when they take a module in the humanities, they also possess a number of strengths that the lecturer should appreciate and capitalise upon. The obvious similarities between mathematics and logic make the latter particularly attractive to those science students with a good grounding in mathematics. Science students are also generally well-disciplined and they therefore appreciate an intellectually demanding course in Philosophy or HPS. Many also have enquiring minds that can potentially be harnessed to engaging the problems raised in Philosophy or HPS. The stronger science students are also usually comfortable with ideas and can be encouraged to discuss them intelligently. Again, their first-hand experience of science should provide them with some of the necessary knowledge and motivation for studying the History of Science or the Philosophy of Science – although they also need to appreciate that their science training alone is insufficient and must be willingly coupled to other disciplines.


Even those science students who possess the above strengths often experience difficulty appreciating the significance of philosophical, historical and social problems that they encounter in Philosophy or HPS modules. As Thomas Kuhn rightly noted in his influential Structure of Scientific Revolutions, problem solving is a major part of a scientist’s training. But the kinds of problem they encounter usually possess definite answers. Given this aspect of their training, science students tend to be pragmatists who may experience difficulty appreciating the significance of open-ended philosophical problems. In their science classes they will have become used to ascertaining the solutions to problems and may therefore may therefore become frustrated by philosophical discussion in which an issue is aired from various different perspectives with no clear resolution. For example, the arguments over realism/antirealism do not lead to any obvious solution but to a long series of arguments and counter-arguments. Some science students will lose patience with such discussions. The lecturer should therefore not only be aware that the students’ background lies in another discipline but some attempt should be made to convey the very different norms governing philosophy and HPS.



  1. Action points


It is not my intention to provide a checklist of actions that will overcome the difficulties discussed above. There is no straightforward solution; indeed, the main aim of this essay is to make the reader aware of these difficulties, especially if the reader has been wholly trained in the humanities and possesses no familiarity with the kind of education that science students have experienced. Yet, in order to generate further discussion I shall mention some of the procedures that my colleagues and I have employed.


Overcoming a lack of confidence may be difficult to achieve, but lecturers have some responsibility to build bridges with science students. While manifesting an enthusiasm for his or her own subject the lecturer should not appear unduly critical or dismissive of science or talk down to science students.[5] As emphasised above, science students often possess considerably potential for pursuing Philosophy or HPS, but that potential needs to be nurtured. Compared with some other branches of Philosophy, the Philosophy of Science offers many opportunities for the lecturer to make connections with aspects of science with which the students will be familiar from their science lectures; e.g. examples can be used that they will have encountered in their science studies. The barrier dividing the ‘Two Cultures’ can be breached by showing that science itself raises a host of philosophical (and historical) problems that many leading scientists have recognised as important. Contrary to the rather limited definition of science implicitly propagated by many science departments, the Philosophy (or HPS) lecturer can accentuate the continuities between science and the broader issues under discussion.


Although it is rare to find joint appointments between Philosophy and science departments, there may be opportunities for interaction so that the Philosophy (of HPS) lecturer is not a complete stranger to the students. A few years ago I co-taught a module on the History and Philosophy of Physics with a physicist who was working on a PhD in HPS and was well-known to the Physics students. This proved very useful historical and philosophical topics were made far mare acceptable by the presence of this familiar physicist.


Numerous strategies can be suggested to help science students – and other students as well – with any problems they may experience in reading, note-taking, writing and speaking. The reader will be able to add considerably to the few suggestions that follow.


Students should be encouraged to keep their own records containing précis of lectures and readings. They should be encouraged to highlight what they consider to be important in their own copies of texts and also write down the key steps in an argument.


Since science students are not trained to read extensive passages, the lecturer should evaluate carefully the quantity of reading material set and determine what can reasonably be internalised in the available time. It is preferable to assign a short and demanding passage that needs to be read carefully and analysed closely than to assign an extensive piece that the unconfident student will simply ignore. It may also help to provide the science student with a few lead questions that can help direct her/his reading so as to concentrate on the main issues expressed in the text.


The lecturer should offer adequate tips about how to write an essay – how it should be constructed, what the marker is looking for, etc. I usually provide students a one page hand-out containing such advice and also in a tutorial give them a sheet containing three very brief answers to a specific question; one answer being worth a first, one a fail and the other gaining a median mark. By comparing the strengths and weaknesses of mock answers students can readily appreciate some of the main pointers to a good essay. I also invite students to submit draft essays so that I can provide detailed and personal feedback, often supplemented by a meeting at which I try to boost the student’s confidence while showing how the essay might be improved.


One issue raised at the outset was the particular problems that arise when a lecturer is teaching a class comprised of both science and humanities students. The former should find the scientific content unproblematic, while the latter will be more used to the norms of Philosophy/HPS (including essay-writing, etc.). It is generally appropriate to acknowledge at the outset that each group brings its own strengths but that each has something to learn from the other. In preparing lectures I usually try to make sure that neither group is disadvantaged but I may add a brief discussion of, say, some aspect of Newtonian mechanics that will not be known by the humanities students but should be familiar to the scientists.


Another difficulty in teaching a ‘mixed’ class is the different skills possessed by the two constituencies, especially the scientists’ relative lack of essay-writing skills. There may be an argument for assessing the two groups by different methods, but that proposal may prove very difficult to justify. One partial resolution is to provide a range of essay questions that will enable both the science and the humanities student to find one or more questions with which they feel comfortable.



  1. Concluding reflection


I want to end this section – and the whole essay – with a caveat. The position I have developed explores the difficulties that many science students encounter in engaging humanities courses and suggests that the lecturer takes due cognisance of these so as to try to ameliorate these difficulties. However, Philosophy and HPS are critical disciplines; critical both of their own content but also of the disciplines they analyse. In trying to make themselves congenial to the science student they must not treat science as beyond reproach, since one of the aims of a course in, say, Philosophy of Science must be to make the science student more self-aware and able to evaluate science critically. Given that science students – and scientists – usually dislike outsiders casting a critical spotlight on science since it feeds the anti-science movement, lecturers will have to tread a fine line between gaining the confidence of students and maintaining an open and critical stance towards specific aspects of science.


This article first appeared in the PRS-LTSN Journal, Vol 1, Summer 2001, pp. 14-24. © Copyright PRS-LTSN, 2001.