Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Nature of Science (NOS)

There is a growing recognition among teachers that we need to teach the "Nature of Science" (NOS). Ideally, this should begin in the primary grades and extend all the way through university. Teaching about the nature of science should not be restricted to students who major in science. Every student should learn about the nature of science.

This is not controversial. I'm not aware of anything in the recent pedagogical literature that argues against teaching the nature of science. What's controversial is how to describe what science is all about.

One of the most important issues is the "Demarcation Problem." It refers to an important debate among philosophers concerning the limits, if any, of science as a way of knowing. One groups sees science as a way of knowing that's restricted to the traditional scientific disciplines like physics, chemistry, geology, and biology. That group tends to agree that there are other ways of knowing that apply to other disciplines and other subjects. The other group sees science as a way of knowing that applies to all knowledge of all types. That group often claims that there are no other legitimate ways of knowing that have a proven track record. (The second group usually takes the position that religion is NOT a valid way of knowing.)

I've written extensively about this controversy.

John Wilkins discusses the "Demarcation Problem"
Territorial demarcation and the meaning of science
Science Doesn't Have All the Answers but Does It Have All the Questions?
Sean Carroll: "What Is Science?"
What Is "Science" According to George Orwell?
What's Wrong with Michael Ruse's View of Accommodationism?

That's not what I want to talk about today.

The pedagogical literature generally ignores the demarcation problem and focuses on how to teach the nature of science (NOS) to students in traditional science classes. A recent paper by Bayir et al. (2014) bucks this trend a little bit by including the opinions of social scientists in their survey of different view on the nature of science. They claim (correctly) that scientific educators have reached a consensus on the core features of NOS. Here they are:

Description of science
Science is an attempt to explain natural phenomena. In other words, science is a body of knowledge about the natural world; and a set of practices, both material and social, which have been used to obtain, and continue to be used to extend, that knowledge.
Although scientific knowledge is reliable and durable, it is never absolute or certain. All scientific knowledge is subject to change.
Theory-laden (subjectivity)
Scientific knowledge is theory-laden. Scientists’ theoretical and disciplinary commitments, beliefs, prior knowledge, training, experiences, and expectations unavoidably affect their work.
Myth of ‘the scientific method’
The myth of ‘the scientific method’ is regularly manifested in the belief that there is a recipe-like stepwise procedure that all scientists follow when they do science. There is no single ‘scientific method’ used by all scientists to attain infallible scientific knowledge. Scientists use a wide variety of methodologies to generate scientific knowledge.
Social and cultural embeddedness of scientific knowledge
Science as a human endeavor is practiced in the context of a larger cultural milieu and its practitioners are the product of that culture. Therefore, science affects and is affected by the various elements and intellectual spheres of the culture in which it is embedded.
Creativity and imagination
Science is not solely based on logic and rationality. Generating scientific knowledge requires creativity and imagination. Scientists use their creativity in all stages of scientific investigations.
Scientific laws and theories
Scientific laws and theories are very different kinds of scientific knowledge. Laws are descriptive statements of relationships or patterns among observable phenomena in nature. Theories are well-supported explanations for scientific phenomenon. One cannot become the other. Also, they do not have hierarchical relationship.
Bayir et al. point out that the views of university scientists are very important because they are the ones who teach science students in university and they are the ones who teach future high school and primary school teachers.

They surveyed scientists at a university and discovered that many of them did not have a very good understanding of modern views on the nature of science.

Surprisingly, 87% of scientists think there is a scientific method that describes the way scientists do their work. Most of them believe in the old hypothesis --> testing --> theory view that hasn't been popular among experts for many decades.

Almost half (49%) of natural scientists and 29% of social scientists thought that science was independent of social and cultural biases.

Almost half (48%) of all scientists believed that a theory becomes a law when it is proven.

The authors conclude that "scientists in the sample have neither completely informed views nor completely naive views about NOS according to contemporary science understanding." This pretty much agrees with results from a dozen studies in the pedagogical literature. The new contribution of this study is that there isn't much of a difference between the opinions of scientists in the traditional science fields and social scientists.

What this means is that educators need to be educated about the nature of science before they can be expected to teach it correctly.

Bayir, E., Cakici, Y. and Ertas, O. (2014) Exploring Natural and Social Scientists’ Views of Nature of Science. International Journal of Science Education 36:1286-1312. [doi: 10.1080/09500693.2013.860496]


  1. How about the myth of Popperian falsification?

  2. Popperian falsification is believed by many biologists to be the basis all inference in biology. But in molecular phylogenetics the data are a stochastic outcome of random processes. There is no outcome of the data that is absolutely impossible, no matter what the hypothesis. So the whole framework of Popperian falsification collapses.

    The same is true in other disciplines, as long as there is some random noise in the observations.

    Popperian falsification has, in effect, been falsified. Most philosophers of science know this, but many biologists haven't got the news.

    1. Popper's worse idea was the paradigm shift. Just as Popper's idea of naive falsification has been falsified, so his idea of paradigm shift needs to be overthrown by a long overdue paradigm shift.

      He did not judge scientific "revolutions" relative to the proper negative control/ outgroup, namely, all the many cranks and crackpots who think they're Galileo bringing a new revolution, but who are rejected by scientific institutions because they don't have evidence for their illogical claims. Popper failed to grasp that the number of crackpots who think they're Galileo, bringing the new revolution, vastly outnumber the very few who participate in real scientific revolutions. Where scientific revolutions are concerned, the noise is much larger than the signal.

      Popper's paradigm shift has been a huge gift to tens of thousands of borderline psychotic narcissists with runaway Dunning-Kruger effect. When, upon the internet, I encounter an unknown person boasting of an impending scientific revolution, I now immediately assume I'm dealing with a nut. I'm basically never wrong on that.

    2. Are you perhaps thinking of Thomas Kuhn's discussion of new paradigms? That picture of the history of science certainly gave heart to innumerable self-promoter who declared their work to have established New Paradigms. In the 1980s it got so bad that I took to telling friends that I intended to become famous by being the only scientist of my generation to do Normal Science.

      Did Popper have something to say on the subject of new paradigms?

    3. Kuhn, yes. My favourite imminent paradigm shift is the one that will see the overthrow of evolutionary theory in favour of one involving a purposive agent - ie, the Second Coming of the previous paradigm. Kuhn will be vindicated by having been wrong all along.

    4. Oops. My bad. *blushes* Thanks for the correction.

  3. Perhaps someone could explain why this topic needs an acronym.

    1. It's traditional in philosophy and philosophy of science. The tradition is partly due to the tediousness of writing phrases like "nature of science" over and over again in a paper and partly due to the fact that it's awkward and confusing to use "nature of science" as a noun without putting it in quotation marks.

  4. That was terrible in how they described science.!! Thats why science is not done today very much relative to what it should be. "In other words". A description should never have such a added phrase by definition.

    YES science is ONLY a methodology. I insist.
    Its not a noun. its a verb. ONLY.
    I see it as a higher standard of investigation, regarding some subject, that can demand confidence in its conclusion(s).
    Science means nothing unless its a higher standard as opposed to ordinary standards which are pretty good.
    Its not a body of knowledge.
    A body of knowledge is just that. That knowledge or conclusions only is scientific if it used a high standard of investigation before drawing conclusions.
    As in court. criminal cases have a higher standard for evidence/investigation before conclusion/judgement as opposed to civil cases. which are not that bad in their investigation.
    Science is about proving things better.
    Thats why evolutionists say evolution is a scientific theory and creationists say its not.
    Evos say creationism is not science while we say either ino origin subjects are or just as sciency as anyone.

    The sci method is not a step by step. THE METHOD is being more intelligent and accurate and weighty in evidence before one can use the prestige of science to back up ones conclusions.
    No wonder its a chaos in teachers what science is.
    its non existent. its just people thinking about things.
    Then how careful you think about it before drawing conclusions.

    This is why evolution is not a scientific theory. its investigation is not of a high method.
    its mostly lines of reasoning and secondary evidences from non biological subjects.
    Wow. That list was strange terrible.
    Ask real scientists who accomplished something. Actually accomplished enough to be remembered 50 years from now.
    Darwin too though wrong.

    1. All of you need to read C Wright Mills. You just want to be keepers of knowledge. The priesthood of knowledge. There's a lot of knowledge you want to deal with so you classify it as ":not science" ;and poof it's gone!

  5. The best universities require their science students to take philosophy of science courses. Ideally, they'd make philosophy of science students take science classes too.

    I'm not sure what makes you think sociologists are better people for giving this instruction, or that philosophers only work on demarcation. Kuhn became very popular among sociologists, sure, but he was a historian in the first place.

    1. What do they do about the fact that not all philosophers of science3 support the priesthood of knowledge? They've been falsified.

    2. "I'm not sure what makes you think sociologists are better people for giving this instruction, or that philosophers only work on demarcation."

      I don't. I said you should read Mills, who happens to have been a sociologist. At the top Dr. Moran lays out two options, the one he seems to favor says science is the only form of knowledge. That is what Mills warns against. BTW when he said it he was writing against his rival and enemy Talcot Parsons at Harvard who was a sociologist. SoTa;lcotz0. My comment is not lionizing sociologists. (I don't remember how to spell

      "Kuhn became very popular among sociologists, sure, but he was a historian in the first place" So am I,. History of ideas. I studied Kuhn. But my BA was in Sociology and Mills was my hero..

    3. ... the one he seems to favor says science is the only form of knowledge.

      That's a misrepresentation of what I said.

      I said that science is a way of knowing. There may be other ways of knowing but so far I've never seen any knowledge (truth) that's been derived from another way of knowing.

      If you have an example then this is a good time to post it. Keep in mind that I use the broad definition of science. What that means is that any knowledge generated by historians and sociologists must have been obtained by the science way of knowing (evidence, logic).

  6. Richard Feynman: Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds

    1. And yet he did devote a series of lectures to the subject, which were posthumously published as a book...
      But I would seriously question any scientists comitment to science if they were uninterested in the subject. Sure it's not useful, but most of us are driven by curiosity rather than applicablity in our research.

    2. The way I see it is is like grammar. Linguistics distinguishes between "descriptive grammar" which simply aims to objectively describe how people use language, and "prescriptive grammar" which aims to rate usage by privileging certain usages over others. Linguistics tends to favor descriptive grammar and sees prescriptive grammar as biased (and often harmful as it tends to classify legitimate traditional dialects as "errors").

      Philosophy of science is like that to me. It's somewhat interesting to see how scientists in practice conduct science, but it is harmful to codify these practices into a "scientific method" where the majority practices are the only acceptable ones.

    3. This Feynman guy couldn't be more wrong.
      What science is and when has it been done is essential to origin issues which are the most famous issues, at least in contention, in humanity.
      Evolutionists say, even in court, that ID/YEC don't do science and we say we do and many/most of us say evolutionism and company do do accurate scientific investigation.
      Yes philosophy of science matters!!
      This shows why someone who did a minor thing in a limited field, physics, and that only about discovering something happening right now, unlike biological processes, should not opine if they think they should be listened to more.
      They raise the stakes of their competence to understand nature and science.
      In short they show they only know their thing .
      many accomplished 'scientists" in the past could do their thing and a general competence in the whole subject called science.
      The philosophy of science has never mattered as much as it does today and thats a great deal.
      If science was settled in its nature then either creationist or evolutionist would have to change a great deal of their presentation.
      AHA. This list of what science is was done by sociologists.
      thats why it was so terrible.

    4. Yes, that's why they shouldn't be allowed to teach philosophy of science..