PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Three Practical Exercises For Teaching the Philosophy of Science

This poster presents and reviews several pedagogical exercises used in a recent introductory undergraduate philosophy of science class. The motivation behind the exercises was to provide students concrete examples with which they could practically apply topics from class. The poster includes descriptions of the exercises and suggests how to incorporate them into various aspects of a class on the philosophy of science.

The first exercise is inspired by the ‘Box Project’ described in Hardcastle and Slater (2014). This exercise lasts the length of the term, and consists in a sealed cardboard box with various items inside. The students are broken into groups, and tasked with determining the contents of the box. Very little explicit guidance is given, relying on the imagination of the groups. At the end of the quarter a class period is devoted to the groups presenting their conclusions with evidence to an impartial jury of faculty members. We explore the efficacy of modifications to Hardcastle and Slater (2014) and how this project made contact with lessons in the class, as well as how it enhanced student understanding and engagement. Alternative presentations and extensions are considered, as well as practical lessons-learned.

The second and third exercise were motivated by a desire to have concrete examples available when considering various theories of science. Both involve a simple electrolysis experiment where current passed through water containing an electrolyte produces hydrogen and oxygen gas at the electrodes. This experiment was first introduced in the context of logical positivism where students were tasked with proposing and differentiating ‘observational’ and ‘theoretical’ terms in relation to the apparatus. The poster outlines how to (safely) construct the apparatus and reflects on the efficacy of the experiment and how it might be improved.

The third exercise involved the same electrolysis apparatus, connected with a lesson on Popper. The experiment is modified so as to capture the hydrogen and oxygen gasses. The students are then led through a discussion about expected observational consequences of the hypothesis that “All water is H2O.” One expectation that is motivated is that the collected gas will explode on exposure to a flame. We perform such an experiment in class and—due to various features of the experimental setup—the experiment fails (as intended). The exercise then asks the students for an analysis of what conclusions we might make about the initial hypothesis. The effect is that students discover on their own the ‘auxiliary-hypothesis’ objection to Popper’s falsificationism. The poster discusses how exercises of this type can help students discover (on their own) the motivation for the historical issues which have concerned philosophers of science. The poster includes a summary and assessment of these and related types of exercises and proposes further suggestions of how to incorporate these activities in other philosophy of science contexts.

Gary Hardcastle and Matthew H. Slater. A novel exercise for teaching the philosophy of science. Philosophy of Science, 81(5):1184–1196, 2014. ISSN 00318248, 1539767X. URL

Author Information:

Olin Robus    
Department of Philosophy
University of Washington


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