Scientists test different types of explanations through experiments, observations, models, and additional theoretical studies. Therefore, the body of scientific knowledge is based on previous ideas and is constantly growing.
It is deliberately shared with colleagues through the peer review process (see our Peer Review module), where scientists comment on each other’s work, and then through publication in the scientific literature, where it can be evaluated and integrated into the body of scientific knowledge by the community at large. And this is not the end: one of the hallmarks of scientific knowledge is that it is subject to change, as new data is collected and reinterpretations of existing data are made. Mainstream theories, which are supported by multiple lines of evidence, rarely change completely, but new data and proven explanations add nuance and detail.
The idea of science is that you can only learn about a phenomenon reliably and accurately by collecting empirical data. The scientific process is designed to reduce human bias as much as possible and make our conclusions as accurate as possible.
What is science?
Science is about understanding the world, but it is a process rather than a set of knowledge. Science consists of two things: a body of knowledge and the process by which that knowledge is produced. This second component of science provides us with a way of thinking and knowing the world. We usually only see the “body of knowledge” component of science. But there are a number of things that distinguish the scientific process and give us confidence in the knowledge that is produced through it.
Philosophy of Science
This discipline is based on epistemology, but overlaps with metaphysics when it explores the relationship between science and the nature of reality. Some philosophers of science also use contemporary results of science to reach conclusions about philosophy itself.
While philosophical thought pertaining to science dates back at least to the time of Aristotle, the philosophy of science emerged as a discipline in the mid-twentieth century. Thomas Kuhn’s landmark 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was also formative, challenging the view of scientific progress as a constant and cumulative acquisition of knowledge.
What is the scientific process?
Different scientific disciplines typically use different methods and approaches to investigate the natural world, but evidence is at the core of all scientists’ scientific research.
Part of the scientific process refers to what you do after the data has been collected. Once you’ve collected the data, it’s analyzed, often using statistics and calculations, and then conclusions are drawn from those results. But how do we know those conclusions are accurate? This process must be completed before any scientific paper is published, and it eliminates a lot of flawed research.
What is the scientific way of thinking?
A scientific way of thinking is something that anyone can use, at any time, whether or not they are in the process of developing new knowledge and explanations. Thinking scientifically involves asking questions that can be answered analytically by collecting data or creating a model and then testing one’s own ideas.
A scientific way of thinking inherently includes creativity in approaching explanations while staying within the confines of the data. Thinking scientifically does not mean rejecting your culture and background, but recognizing the role they play in the way you think. These different ways of thinking are complementary, not in competition, as they address different aspects of the human experience.
In the classical economic literature on the public good of scientific knowledge, the idea of a public (or common) good has received much attention. Surprisingly, in this literature there has not been a similar focus on the notion of scientific knowledge.
Consensus Theory of Truth
Peirce’s contribution to the social epistemology of science is commonly regarded as his consensual theory of truth: “The opinion that is destined to be ultimately accepted by all who investigate is what we understand by truth, and the object represented is the real.” (Peirce 1878, 133) Although often read to the effect that truth is that on which the community of researchers converges in the long run, the notion can be interpreted in the most precise sense that truth (and “the real”) depends on the agreement of the community of inquirers or that it is an effect of the real that in the end will produce an agreement between the inquirers.
“We cannot, individually, expect to achieve the ultimate philosophy we pursue; we can only seek it for the community of philosophers.” (Peirce 1868, 40). Thus, whether his theory of truth is consensual or realistic, his vision of the practices by which we attain it gives a central place to dialogue and social interaction.
The concept of NOS
The phrase “nature of science” (NOS) can refer to the epistemology of science or to the principles and beliefs inherent in the development of scientific knowledge. However, there is disagreement among philosophers of science, historians of science, sociologists of science, scientists, and educators of science about a specific conception of NOS. We also acknowledge this lack of agreement, and will therefore use the phrase “NOS” instead of “the NOS” throughout this paper after Lederman and his colleagues.
After synthesizing the main literature of NOS, three aspects of NOS are considered in this research: a) the nature of scientific knowledge, b) the nature of the scientific research and c) the nature of the scientific enterprise, which constitutes the conceptual framework and is discussed below.
Nature of scientific knowledge
Although scientific knowledge is durable, it is never absolute or certain (Lederman, 2004; Osborne, et al., 2003). When new evidence is found against existing knowledge, as a result of the advancement of technology, or old evidence is reinterpreted in the light of new advanced theory, existing knowledge can be altered (Lederman, 2004). In addition, the uncertainty of scientific knowledge is observed because it is inferential, subjective, creative and culturally rooted in nature.
Although scientific knowledge “is derived from, and/or consistent with observations of natural phenomena,” it is also inferential in nature. “Observations are descriptive statements about natural phenomena that are ‘directly’ accessible to the senses (or extensions of the senses)” (Lederman, 2004). For example, if we release an object above ground level, we can observe its tendency to fall and hit the ground. On the other hand, the object tends to fall to the ground due to gravity, which is not accessible to our senses and “can only be accessed and/or measured through its manifestations of effects” (Lederman, 2004). This logical conclusion of observation is called inference.
Of a theoretical and subjective nature
The theoretical knowledge, training, experience, commitments, religious or other beliefs, political convictions, sex and ethnicity of scientists can form a mindset that affects scientific research (Lederman, 2004). Different scientists with different values are engaged in different forms of scientific research (Allchin, 1999). In addition, these values influence what they observe (and do not observe) and how they interpret those observations. In other words, these observations help to find answers to some questions, which are derived from certain theoretical perspectives.
Scientific knowledge involves human inference, imagination and creativity
Despite having an empirical basis of scientific knowledge, it involves the imagination and creativity of scientists (Lederman, 2004). For example, the concepts of atoms, black holes, force fields, and species are not faithful copies of reality, but are functional theoretical models as a result of the creative integration of the SNO and its inferential nature (Abd-El-Khalick, et al., 2008).
Nature and function of theories and laws
Scientific laws are “statements or descriptions of the relationships between observable phenomena”,scientific theories, on the other hand, are “inferred explanations of observable phenomena” (Lederman, 2004, p. 305). For example, in Einstein’s theory of relativity, gravity plays a crucial role. In this theory, the basic law of gravity is intact, and the theory expands it to include diverse and complex situations involving space and time. It should be noted that theories and laws are based on empirical data, are considered as different types of knowledge and one does not become the other. However, it is often believed that after being empirically tested a hypothesis becomes a theory and the laws are mature-futile theories.
Nature of scientific research
Myth of the “Scientific Method”
It is often perceived that there is a step-by-step procedure similar to a recipe in all scientific research. However, there is no single “scientific method” that guarantees the development of scientific knowledge. Moreover, there is no single sequence of practical, conceptual or logical activities that accurately leads to valid claims in the development of scientific knowledge.
Myth of “The Experimentation”
This myth of NOS refers to the idea that only experimental research characterizes scientific research. However, scientific research can take other forms, such as descriptive and correlative (Lederman, 2004).
Nature of the scientific enterprise
The social and cultural integration of science
Science is a human enterprise rooted and practiced in society (Abd-El-Khalick, et al., 2008); therefore, science affects and is affected by different cultural elements, such as social values, power structures, politics, socioeconomic factors, philosophy and religion (Lederman, 2004). The influence of these factors can be seen in the question of public funding of scientific research.
Interaction between science and technology
Science and technology have different roles in society. It is important to understand the interaction and have an understanding of the distinctions between science and technology. However, there are often misconceptions among teachers in this regard, as technology is applied science.
Cooperation and collaboration in science
Scientific work is a collective and collaborative activity (Lederman, 2004). Although individuals can make important contributions, scientific work is usually carried out in groups. New knowledge claims are generally shared and must go through a double-blind peer review process to be accepted by the scientific community.
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Anderson, M. L. 2003. “Embodied Cognition: A Field Guide.” Artificial Intelligence 149: 91–130.10.1016/S0004-3702(03)00054-7
Lederman (2004). “The Normative Structure of Science.” In The Sociology of Science, R. K. Merton, edited by N.W. Storer, 267–278. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Miller, B. 2015. “Why (Some) Knowledge is the Property of a Community and Possibly None of its Members.” The Philosophical Quarterly 65 (260): 417–441.10.1093/pq/pqv025
Peirce (1878) 2002. “The Simple Economics of Basic Scientific Research.” In Science Bought and Sold: Essays in the Economics of Science, edited by P. Mirowski and E.-M. Sent, 151–164. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
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