The Nature of Science

posted Aug 4, 2011, 4:40 AM by
  1. Science makes a crucial distinction between Observation and Inference. Observations are descriptive statements about natural phenomena that are directly accessible to the senses, and about which several observers can easily reach consensus.  Inferences are statements about phenomena that are NOT directly accessible to the senses; they can only be accessed and/or measured through manifestations or effects.  Example: objects released above ground level tend to fall and hit the ground. This is an Observation.  Objects tend to fall to the ground because of gravity. This is an inference as we cannot directly access "gravity".
  2. Science makes a crucial distinction between Scientific Laws and Theories.  Theories and Laws are different kinds of knowledge and one cannot develop or be transformed into the other.  Laws are statements or descriptions of the relationships among observable phenomena.  Boyle's Law, which relates the pressure of a gas to its volume at a constant temperature, is an excellent example of a law.  Theories are inferred explanations of observable phenomena.  Theories serve an important role in guiding investigations, generating new research problems, and explaining relatively large sets of seemingly unrelated observations, among others.  The kinetic molecular theory serves to explain phenomena that relate to changes in the physical states of matter, others that relate to the rates of chemical reaction, as well as heat transfer, among others.
  3. Human imagination and creativity are an essential ingredient of Science.  The inferential nature of Science requires this, as demonstrated by the development of theoretical models that scientists use to explain things.
  4. Scientific knowledge is subjective, or theory-laden.  Scientists' theoretical commitments, beliefs, previous knowledge, training, experiences, and expectations influence their work.  All these background factors form a mindset that affects the problems scientists choose to investigate and how they conduct their investigations, what they observe, and how they interpret those observations.  Observations and investigations are always motivated and guided by, and acquire meaning in reference to, existing questions and problems.
  5. Science is a human enterprise and is practiced in the context of a larger culture and scientists are the product of that culture.  Science is socially and culturally embedded: social fabric, power structures, politics, socioeconomic factors, philosophy and religion.  The controversy over Evolution and Stem Cell Research are two excellent examples of this aspect of the Nature of Science.
  6. Science is tentative; it is never absolute or certain, and is always subject to change.  Scientific claims change as new evidence, made possible through advances in theory or technology, and is brought to bear on existing theories or laws, or as old evidence is reinterpreted in the light of new theoretical advances or shifts in the directions of established research programs.  Tentativeness in Science arises from the fact that scientific knowledge is inferential, creative, and socially and culturally embedded. Scientific hypotheses, theories, and laws can never be absolutely "proven".

National Science Teachers Association (1997). The Teaching of Evolution--A Position Statement of NSTA.  Washington, DC.

Lederman, N.G. (1998). "The State of Science Education: Subject Matter Without Context", The Electronic Journal of Science Education, 3(2)