The assertion that the History of Science can inform us of how modern Science works is growing in popularity and is implicit in the NGSS section on the Nature of Science (NOS). This may be true, but only in a limited sense, which has not been carefully scrutinized. If understanding twentieth and twenty-first century Science is the purpose, then only historical examples that illuminate it are relevant to the standards.

An example that has nothing to do with the process of modern Science (even though it is suggested in NGSS Appendix H!) is the Galileo story. First, Galileo was arguing with the Catholic Church and faith-based dogma, not a community of scientists using reason and evidence to invent explanations founded in natural causes. Second, the standard narrative teaches the lesson that an individual scientist (who is the sole shining arbiter of “truth”!) must have the “honesty” to confront “corrupt orthodoxy” despite the threat of personal and professional destruction. This quixotic and moralistic flummery is quite wrong about how modern Science is really done (see

Even worse, this misunderstanding does real damage. By confusing faith-based dogma with twenty-first century Scientific Consensus, it plays directly into the distortions of Pseudoscience. Is it any wonder that many who have been taught this misleading tale, can be duped when it is twisted on its head to falsely equate the science of Climate Change or Vaccination with religious orthodoxy, or modern scientists with an invested priesthood who are trying to crush the truths told by a few deniers?

A much better example of how modern Science works, yet one that is never mentioned, is Thomas Cech, who discovered that some RNAs have catalytic properties, just as enzymes do. This completely upended the prevailing view that RNA was only an inert informational molecule. Yet far from being punished for defying orthodoxy, Cech was rewarded with the Nobel Prize in 1989. In modern Science, it is just not true that challenging established models risks personal retribution. Quite to the contrary, it is often the best way to hit a home run.

Another example of bad History of Science is the canonical story of DNA, in which Rosalind Franklin's data were “stolen” and she was “cheated” of the Nobel Prize. First, Wilkins was legitimately privy to Franklin's data. Franklin may not have been happy that he shared it with a friend, but there was nothing dishonest about it, certainly not by the clubby etiquette of post-war British Science. Second, although Watson's memoir was ungracious, the fact is that Franklin was included among the inner circle from the beginning, and her paper with all her data was published immediately next to Watson and Crick's in the same issue of Nature. Third, the fact that by 1962, Franklin was unfortunately deceased and therefore ineligible for the Nobel is hardly an example of dishonesty. Fourth, even Franklin would probably have a significantly more nuanced view of this legend. She and Crick subsequently became good friends, and he and his wife Odile helped nurse her during her final illness.

None of this is to diminish the power of History as a pedagogical device. However, it is important to keep in mind the ancient Greek caveat to “First, do no harm.” Clearly this means three things. First, the examples must adhere to the standards of rigor and accuracy of professional historians. Second, the process of twentieth century Science itself must be understood. Unfortunately, the textbook presentation of the “Scientific Method” as Hypothesis, Experiment, Conclusion, is a gross and simplistic misrepresentation (see the link above). Third, the historical examples must be relevant to twentieth and twenty-first century Science. The issue here is that Science did not even mature into its modern form until the latter part of the nineteenth century with the first rising of a class of professional scientists. Therefore, examples from the ancient world or the Enlightenment cannot reflect the intricate social feedback loops among experimental evidence, peer debate, falsification, justification, consistency, coherence and consensus-building, which are the soul of the way Science operates today.

Despite the difficulties, it is far more important for all citizens to understand how Science knows than it is to know what Science knows. Knowing the organelles of a cell, or balancing a chemical equation may be useful for budding science majors, but what is needed by most people—above all—is an understanding of how and why Science can have confidence in what it knows. If we don't teach the Epistemology of Science to the public, why should they believe its conclusions?

In recognizing this truth and recommending it, the NOS standards do a great service. The obvious calamity is that few college and university faculty, either in the Sciences or in Science Education, are concerned about transmitting the intellectual skills of History and philosophy. It is simply a fact that most of the teachers in Science middle and secondary classrooms have been ill-equipped by their college or service training to constructively implement the historical approaches that are recommended.

This being so, it is disturbing that no philosophers and historians of science are mentioned among those who have developed the NOS standards. This puzzling lapse is a concern because amateurs who carelessly bandy about “pop” Pseudohistory risk the unintended consequence of enabling Pseudoscience. I hope it is not too presumptuous to caution that the Science Education community and establishment should be extremely wary of the NOS standards without closely engaging professional historians and philosophers of science in their implementation.