When trying to describe the nature of science, it can be useful to think of science as a culture in just the same way that we think of the cultural worlds of art and music. We need to understand and talk art or music when we enter these worlds. In the same way, we need to be able to understand and talk science.
Science educator and researcher Derek Hodson compares teaching science to the way an anthropologist teaches about another culture. Both can be seen as involving a tribe of people with particular knowledge, a certain language, customs, practices, traditions, attitudes and values.
When we describe the nature of science, we are considering the special characteristics, values, and assumptions that scientific knowledge is based on and how scientific knowledge is developed.
Characteristics of the nature of science
Science education has defined tenets (characteristics) of the nature of science that are understandable by students and important for all citizens to know. William McComas and Joanne Olson analysed recent science education curriculum documents worldwide and identified 14 statements about the nature of science that are common to most curricula:
- Science is an attempt to explain natural phenomena.
- People from all cultures contribute to science.
- Scientific knowledge, while durable, has a tentative character.
- Scientific knowledge relies heavily, but not entirely, on observation, experimental evidence, rational arguments and scepticism.
- There is no one way to do science – therefore, there is no universal step-by-step scientific method
- New knowledge must be reported clearly and openly.
- Scientists require accurate record-keeping, peer review and reproducibility.
- Observations are theory laden.
- Scientists are creative.
- Over the centuries, science builds in both an evolutionary and a revolutionary way.
- Science is part of social and cultural traditions.
- Science and technology impact each other.
- Scientific ideas are affected by the social and historical setting.
- Laws and theories serve different roles in science – therefore, students should note that theories do not become laws even with additional evidence.
Some researchers have refined this list to the following five tenets:
- Scientific knowledge is tentative (subject to change).
- Science is empirically based (based on or derived from observation of the natural world).
- Science is inferential, imaginative and creative.
- Science is subjective and theory laden.
- Science is socially and culturally embedded.
This is probably the most widely recognised list of tenets of the nature of science. These tenets are considered appropriate for primary to secondary school learning because they provide a more accurate view of the scientific enterprise and do not require expertise in science to be effectively understood. Each tenet is described in the article Tenets of the nature of science.
There are two additional important aspects:
- The distinction between observation and inferences.
- The relationships between scientific theories and data.
These are discussed in the article Myths of the nature of science.
These tenets can be used to make each of the substrands of the nature of science in the New Zealand curriculum document easier to understand and easier to teach. They are particularly useful in unpacking the Understanding about science substrand.
Abd-El-Khalick, F., Bell, R.L. & Lederman, N.G. (1998). The nature of science and instructional practice: Making the unnatural natural. Science Education, 82(4), 417–436.
Hodson, D. (2009). Teaching and learning about science: Language, theories, methods, history, traditions and values. Sense Publishers: Rotterdam.
McComas, W.F. & Olson, J.K. (1998). The nature of science in international science education standards documents. In McComas (Ed.), The nature of science in science education: Rationales and strategies (pp. 41–52). Kluwer Academic Publishers: The Netherlands.
This interactive module from HHMI BioInteractive allows students and educators to document, annotate, and reflect upon scientific research processes.