Science education and what? Wikipedia?

by webmaster on March 25, 2010

Recently I attended a talk given in the Science Gallery in Dublin by Professor Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti entitled The Role of Science and Technology in Meeting Societal Grand Challenges. It was very interesting and Prof Venky, which I will take the liberty of calling him, was an enthusiastic and articulate speaker who presented information about the course he runs in the Kennedy School in Harvard University, where he is Director of Science, Technology and Public Policy.
The course is designed to educate Harvard’s finest on science, technology, engineering etc in a broad sense so that they are educated enough to be able to put the knowledge to use when they become the inevitable leaders of society and policy that they are being prepared for.
What I found particularly interesting was that he recommended the use of Wikipedia as a source for teaching. Now, I would have always thought that Wikipedia is prone to having inaccurate information as well as prone to having downright false and sometimes libelous information as well.
This raised two questions for me:
First, and perhaps most important to those science communication types who read this blog: is it right to use a source such as Wikipedia to impart scientific knowledge, even if that knowledge is being imparted to a level of student that has had practically no formal scientific education to speak of and who quite often don’t even know the difference to quote Prof. Venky ‘between current and voltage’? Does it matter if the source of their learning is not exactly of the same quality as approved third level science textbooks? My opinion (and what would a blog be without an opinion) is that to a large extent it doesn’t matter. For a start, the Wiki article will probably be written in a much more readable form; it will be in a form that they are familiar with; and lastly the likelihood is that they are only going to use it for very broad knowledge – it’s not going to become the major reference for educating future surgeons on anatomy.
However I would express a note of caution… don’t use it to teach them about climate science – to be quite honest after everything that’s happened in the last 6 months about climate change data, we should all be very sure of the authenticity of the data we’re reading, and yes, that includes us science communication types, and scientists.
The second question, I hear you ask? Well, I just wondered if there might not be such a danger in Wiki science articles being ‘messed around’ with. What do you think? Answers on a postcard please…

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