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Sep 14 2013

On the nature of science

In setting standards for their science curricula, state and local boards of education invariably have to deal with the question of the nature of science because having students understand it is usually one of the mandates given to the drafting committees. This becomes especially necessary in order to know how to best respond when efforts are made to insert religious ideas into the science curriculum or to undermine those scientific ideas (like evolution) that are viewed by religious people as being opposed to religion.

When I have seen earlier attempts by school boards at explicating the nature of science, I have been dismayed because even when their hearts are in the right place, they tend to present a naïve or oversimplified view of what constitutes science.

But not Kentucky. I already wrote about their exceptionally strong stand in rejecting efforts to dilute and undermine their science curriculum. In reading further into the document, I found that they had also written a remarkably sophisticated section dealing with the nature of science, especially on the question of what makes a scientific ‘theory’ and what constitutes the ‘scientific method’.

In its final Statement of Consideration to the Next Generation Science Standards, the Kentucky Board of Education came up with the following (Click on the link to section XII.A):

The agency has determined that, in the scientific and science education communities, a theory is a statement of general ideas that explains many observations of the natural world. In the scientific and science education communities, the word “theory” is a very precise term that identifies a concept that has great utility in explaining phenomena in the natural world. Ideas only rise to the level of scientific theories if they have withstood scrutiny and are exceptionally useful in explaining a wide variety of independent observations. Any scientific theory can be altered or replaced if the theory cannot adequately explain new observations or new scientific evidence.

In the field of science, facts do not become theories. Rather, theories explain facts. No theory is immune from revision or replacement in the face of new facts. There is a substantial difference between the everyday and conversational meaning of the word “theory,” and the scientific meaning of the word. In everyday conversation, an idea is often labeled a theory for the purpose of painting it as little more than a guess. As explained above, the scientific meaning of the term is much narrower. The Next Generation Science Standards employ the scientific meaning of “theory.” Referring to biological evolution as a theory, for the purpose of contesting it, does not weaken the acceptance of biological evolution within the scientific and science education communities.

There is no significant ongoing debate within the scientific community regarding the legitimacy of evolution as a scientific idea. Inconsistencies and unknown details exist in all areas of scientific research and knowledge. The existence of inconsistencies and unknown factors does not negate the dramatically larger body of evidence supporting the prevailing theories in those areas of research. (p. 110)

The scientific method is not universally defined. The scientific method is often presented as exclusively consisting of five steps, usually including (1) defining the problem, (2) forming a hypothesis, (3) making observations, (4) testing the hypothesis, and (5) drawing conclusions. In the practice, and teaching, of science, observation may be the first step. The scientific method is a fluid process that does not necessarily employ each of the five steps listed above, nor dictate the order in which the steps should be applied. The agency recognizes that science professionals and teachers may validly employ other models of scientific practice. (p. 122)

I could not have said it better myself.

Of course, final approval has to be given by the state and the relevant committee of the General Assembly rejected the standards by a vote of 5-1 but the governor said that he will use his authority to implement them for the 2014-2015 year. It is expected that even if some changes are eventually made to get it passed by the legislature, they will not be major.

But the state Board of Education has to be commended for coming up with a fine document.

3 comments

  1. 1
    Enkidum

    That five-step definition of the scientific method drives me crazy. Strictly interpreted, then, Galileo wasn’t engaged in science when he pointed a telescope at Jupiter and just recorded what he could see, and neither was Darwin when he went around the world and looked at what flora and fauna he could find in different areas, because neither of them had any ideas about what they were going to find at the time, so it was step 3 without steps 1 and 2.

    This narrow interpretation of appropriate scientific behaviour even impacts some scientists. A huge amount of my work is heavily observational because I’m working in a very exploratory area – we just don’t have any real data about what is actually going on. I know that I am very likely to find something interesting, but basically anything I find is almost certain to be interesting. I always have a hypothesis or two that drives the particular form of observations I am taking, but there ends up being far more data than is strictly necessary to test them, and often that is where the interesting patterns are found. Of course this means that these results have to be treated far more provisionally, since they weren’t obtained by true experiment, but it would be a disservice to the community (and a waste of time and money) not to report them.

    But I get pressure from reviewers (and occasionally co-authors) to frame my papers as if every finding was predicted by a specific hypothesis ahead of time. Which I’m sure makes it more likely to get a paper in Nature or whatever, but it’s just not the way science always works, and certainly isn’t in this case.

  2. 2
    Jockaira

    Arguing with Kentucky’s BOE definition of science, its methods, and the scientific community’s usage of the concept of theory is like arguing with a dictionary’s expositional explanation of word usage. Those doing so just haven’t been paying attention for the past few hundreds of years and don’t seem to want to catch up with the real world.

  3. 3
    hyphenman

    Good afternoon Mano,

    Now, if only our own Ohio governor were half as enlightened…

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff

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