Almost 20 years ago (gasp!), I took a course in history and philosophy of science. At the University of Oklahoma, there is in fact an extremely strong program in this field thanks largely to the DeGolyer collections, a large contribution of important works in this field. I found it a fascinating branch of my interest in science, and though that isn’t exactly what I ended up doing it is always fun to come across scientists who also like delving into the how-we-know-what-we-know. Massimo Pigliucci has made the conversion from biologist to philosopher, for example, and has a blog that often discusses the fertile ground between the two fields.

We (the Genetics department, more specifically Brian Condie and myself) are teaching a new course this year for our incoming graduate students that will be playing around with this theme as well. It is called “Problems in Genetics” but the goal is not to learn the latest in quantitave PCR approaches, but to learn more about how good questions are asked, and why. We’ve started the semester off with a chapter from E.O. Wilson’s Consilience, and it may have been a big surprise to the students to be reading something like this in a Genetics class but I hope this pays off. We really want to break our new students of some of the habits that undergrad scientists get into. They need to become skeptical of the literature while understanding its value; they need to understand how to develop questions themselves; and they need to understand the conceptual breadth of our field, and how it attaches to other fields like ecology and biochemistry.

We’ll be revisiting old experiments and how they guide us today; discussing what models are, and the value of both conceptual and mathematical approaches. Most of all, we want to finally squash the lack of understanding that affects almost every academic department, the narrowness that leads to disdain for compatriots simply because they aren’t studying something so directly tied to what we are doing. Put simply, we want a student to understand why somebody is asking the question and using the methods, even if that student doesn’t care to ask that question or use that method themselves.

Wish us luck. Welcome to the new school year.