Archive for August, 2014

The Nature of Science

When I was a student and a beginning science teacher I simply thought science was the way to understand the world through systematic methods, namely “scientific methods”. I remember my teacher asked me to memorise the steps of scientific methods which I recognised as science itself. I had never thought about the philosophy of science, the truth, or the scientific community. In my doctoral thesis, I started opening my eyes to a far deeper insight into the nature and history of science. I used to believe that science is developed in the belief of one truth; in that science there is only right and wrong answer, there is no opportunity for other beliefs. Then I realised that scientific knowledge is recognised not only because of its symbolic nature but is constructed and validated through social interaction, or the dialogue process, within the scientific community. I remembered the agreement in August, 2008, when it was decided that Pluto would no longer be classified a planet. I realised the power of the scientific community in deciding the truth of science. Therefore, once scientific knowledge is validated by the scientific community it becomes ‘acceptable scientific’ concepts.

In relation to philosophy of science, Theobald (1968) states that science is concerned with facts about the world we live in, meanwhile the philosophy of science focuses on the nature of scientific facts (the structure of facts and the relations between them). Martin (1972) pointed out that there are four different ways to understand the philosophy of science; (1) a systematic development of the world view presented by science (the universe), (2) certain scientific investigations of science itself (history), (3) critical investigation of science as a social institution (society), (4) and analysis, clarification and critique of the concepts and methods of science (most common). As cited in McComas (2008, p. 249), the nature of science (NOS) is closely related, but is not identical to, the history and philosophy of science when NOS is defined as “a hybrid domain which blends aspects of various social studies of science including the history, sociology and philosophy of science combined with research from the cognitive sciences such as psychology into a rich description of science; how it works, how scientists operate as a social group, and how society itself both directs and reacts to scientific endeavours. For this chapter, I focus on the history and the nature of science to help me gain an understanding of the big picture of the philosophy of science.

According to Hoyningen-Huene (2008), in order to understand the nature of science, we can look to the history of science itself, even though at the beginning of the 21st Century there was no consensus among philosophers, historians or scientists about the nature of science, however, we could see that science has its own characteristics as a unique cultural product. In addition, science comes from the language of ‘scientia’ (Latin) which means knowledge. However, science could be referring to, in the broadest possible sense, not only all the sciences in the sense of the natural sciences but also the social sciences and the humanities. Therefore Hoyningen-Huene (2008) provides the features of science which characteristically distinguish it from other forms of knowledge, especially from everyday knowledge, by its higher degree of systematicity through eight dimensions – descriptions, explanations, predictions, the defense of knowledge claims, epistemic connectedness, an ideal of completeness, knowledge generation and the representation of knowledge. Meanwhile Milne (2011) provides four components in science which are empirical criteria, logical argument, sceptical review and the natural world. These four components refer to the use of our senses/observations, the rules of logic, what is science, and exploring nature. Then, when I came across aspects of the nature of science I found the following statement by Lederman (as cited in Deng, Chen, Tsai, & Chai, 2011, p. 963) to be relevant to seven aspects of the nature of science:

Scientific knowledge is tentative (subject to change), empirically based (based on and/or derived from observations of the natural world), and subjective (involves personal background, biases, and/or is theory-laden); necessarily involves human inference, imagination, and creativity (involves the invention of explanations); and is socially and culturally embedded. Two additional important aspects are the distinction between observations and inferences, and the functions of and relationships between science theories and laws.

Even though it has been debated whether scientific inquiry ought to be included in the nature of science, these seven aspects are recognised by many science educators (Deng, Chen, Tsai, & Chai, 2011). Thus, throughout the literature, I can see science is about exploring nature and everyday lives through scientific methods by certain rules of logic. Finally, I agree with a famous quote by Albert Einstein: “the whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking”, which means the whole of science is nothing more than a systematisation of everyday thinking (Hoyningen-Huene, 2008, p. 180).

In relation to the issue of science as a body of knowledge, according to Rosenblatt (2011), we need to differentiate between the body of understanding and the body of information. My understanding is that science in an effort to understand the world, not simply the source of information. Since understanding the world is complex and we need different points of view the issue of complexity in science is becoming important. Science is viewed not only as a singular body of knowledge but more as general systems, cybernetics, chaos, deep eco-logical, enactivist and autopoietic theories which emerge in dynamic structure (Fenwick, 2009). Thus, as science educators we need to realise whose knowledge has been privileged to understand the world. As Tytler (2007, p. 22) points out, most scientists and science educators “see science as universal, and scientific knowledge as having privileged status on the basis of the reliability of the methods of science which has been criticized by different perspectives from “feminist, post-colonialist, sociological, anthropological, and from critical and cultural studies” with questions which refer to knowledge production such as “what can be known and by whom, and what constitutes and validates knowledge”.

Since scientific ideas involve human beings science is not value-free. It involves passion, love, even ambition. Thus, Bekoff (2000) states that science supposes to tell us what things are and the way they are, however, science is not value-free with many prejudices embedded in scientific training and thinking. Even though most scientists are grounded in the common sense notion of science that “science is viewed as a fact-gathering, value-free activity in which individual values and subjectivity play no role”, however we cannot ignore that scientists are humans who have individual agendas — personal, social, economical and political (Bekoff, 2000, p. 60). As science is also concerned with control, scientists often feel uncomfortable when they can’t control the variables and sometimes controlled experiments ignore the existence of complex relationships among variables (Bekoff, 2000). Therefore, some scientists feel that they learn to deal with complex situations by not oversimplifying complex relationships among variables (Bekoff, 2000). According to Bekoff (2000, p. 62) “reductionism (in science) promotes alienation, isolation, and disconnection”, thus he proposed scientists as holists and more heart-driven, which means that science is embedded with a “sense of togetherness and relationship, family and community, and awe” and “is infused with spirit, compassion, and love”.

In education, the issue of including the nature of science has been widespread as, according to McComas (2008, p. 249), science curriculum reform starts to include the nature of science which helps students to understand and appreciate the scientific enterprise both as content (the facts of science) and process (the generation and testing of truth claims in science). According to Deng, Chen, Tsai, and Chai (2011, p. 962), views of the nature of science will help students to “(a) understand the process of science, (b) make informed decisions on socio-scientific issues, (c) appreciate science as a pivotal element of contemporary culture, (d) be more aware of the norms of the scientific community, and (e) learn science content with more depth”. Students’ views of the nature of science involve 10 dimensions and can be conceptualized as a continuum ranging from positivist/empiricist to constructivist/relativist perspectives, [in which] positivist/empiricist views are labelled as naıve or inadequate views, whereas the constructivist/relativist views are labelled as informed or adequate (McComas, 2008).

Finally, we must also acknowledge indigenous scientific knowledge. McKinley (as stated in Milne, 2011, p. 8) “argues that Indigenous Knowledge is place-based knowledge, which is often dismissed as irrelevant in educational settings as science becomes, if it is not already, increasingly global and universal”. According to Milne (2011, p. 8), “Indigenous Knowledge is local and, for people, their knowledge is specific to place. Indigenous Knowledge typically consists of creation stories and cosmologies that explain the origin of the Earth and people, codes of ritual/behaviour that organize human interactions with the environment, practices and patterns of resource allocation, and a body of factual knowledge”. According to Milne (2011), the tide of positivism, logical empiricism and Eurocentrism views science as the knowledge of power, whereas a pluralist model recognises all knowledge as equal. Eurocentric science is not uniquely Western or modern. It has borrowed from knowledge traditions across the world, including the Americas, African, Chinese, Indian, Islamic, Arabic and Pacific (Milne, 2011).

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