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Sciences in subjective mode

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Wednesday, 15 February 2006

Last year, a group representing Australia's leading scientific bodies signed an open letter arguing intelligent design is unscientific and should not be taught alongside the theory of evolution.

The scientists argued that whereas evolution can be tested, teaching science students that a supernatural being was responsible for creation “would be a mockery of Australian science teaching and throw open the door of science classes to similarly unscientific world views - be they astrology, spoon-bending, the flat-earth cosmology or alien abductions''.

Unfortunately, for those who oppose ID by arguing that science should only deal with what can be proved or disproved in a rational way, by being tested and open to the rigours of scientific explanation, the horse has already bolted. The reality, as a result of Australia's adoption of outcomes-based education, which includes such fads as whole language, where children are taught to look and guess, and fuzzy maths, where memorising tables and mental arithmetic go out the window, is that Australia's science curriculum is already unscientific.


One of the defining characteristics of outcomes-based education is that learning is no longer based on the traditional disciplines associated with an academic curriculum and the belief that knowledge is impartial and objective. Now, for example, the time available to teach geology may be reduced to accommodate teaching about the environmental damage that mining can cause, a different concern unrelated to basic science knowledge. Applications of science can be given priority over that basic knowledge.

Tertiary academics in subjects such as physics and chemistry lament the way first-year courses have been watered down over time and that school science is more about sociology than teaching the structure of the discipline.

Even Geoff Masters, head of the Australian Council for Educational Research and a strong supporter of experiments such as outcomes-based education, accepts that Australia's approach to curriculum is far from perfect. “During the 1990s, considerable effort went into reform of the curricula for the primary and middle years of schooling, resulting in new state curriculum and standards frameworks,'' he says. “It is not clear that these efforts have improved levels of mathematics and science performance in Australian primary schools.''

As noted by the South Australian academic Tony Gibbons in his book On Reflection, much of Australia's school curriculum adopts a relativistic view where science, instead of being based on an objective view of reality, is considered subjective and culturally determined. The South Australian curriculum states: “Viewing experiences, ideas and phenomena through the lenses of diverse cultural sciences provide a breadth and depth of understanding that is not possible from any one cultural perspective. Every culture has its own ways of thinking and its own world views to inform its science. Western science is the most dominant form of science but it is only one form among the sciences of the world.''

The Northern Territory science curriculum adopts a similar approach; described as a “social-constructivist perspective'' and one where “science as a way of knowing is constructed in a socio-cultural context''.

While the more traditional view of science is based on the belief that there are some absolutes that can be empirically tested - water boils at a certain temperature, the air we breathe is constituted a particular way - the West Australian curriculum also argues that our understanding of the world is subjective and culturally determined: “People from different backgrounds and cultures have different ways of experiencing and interpreting their environment, so there is a diversity of world views associated with science and scientific knowledge which should be welcomed, valued and respected.


“They [students] appreciate that when they make observations, they do so from their own point of view and way of thinking. They recognise that aspects of scientific knowledge are constructed from a particular gender or cultural perspective.”

Those familiar with the culture wars in the US, where new-age, politically correct academics argue that Galileo, Newton and Einstein are simply dead white European males and there is nothing superior or privileged about Western civilisation, will be familiar with the argument.

As noted by Gibbons: “The implication is that Western science is a limited social construction and that other cultural sciences can make up for the limitations of Western science.''

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First published in The Australian on January 21, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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