Descriptive Understandings of the Nature of Science: Examining the Consensual and Family Resemblance Approaches

Abstract

This paper performs a critical analysis of the consensual and family resemblance approaches to the nature of science. Despite the debate that surrounds them, between a pragmatic consensus and a more comprehensive understanding, both approaches have in common the goal of helping students to internalize knowledge about science in a descriptive level. In light of Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language, we show how such choice is committed to particular conceptions of understanding, knowledge and language, and what some of the implications are. We argue that, besides preventing a qualitative understanding about science, both frameworks also tend to undermine freedom of thought, which is intrinsically related to other important values of a democratic science education. In order to avoid this problem, we suggest the notions of grammar and language-games to guide future research. They allow us to conceive of understanding in a non-mentalist way and to see the knowledge about science against different points of reference to which students should have access if we want them to go beyond the ability to describe the features of science. Some already existing research that are compatible with our defence are supported and exemplified.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Each of the tenets has a specific meaning (Abd-El-Khalick 2012). For instance, ‘Science is tentative’ means that scientific knowledge can change when new evidence is provided; often made possible by technological and conceptual advances or sociocultural shifts and interests.

  2. 2.

    Dagher and Erduran (2016) separate this category in two: methodology, and aims and values.

  3. 3.

    Under the latter category, Irzik and Nola (Idem) added four categories: professional activities, scientific ethos, social certification and dissemination, and social values. Recently, Dagher and Erduran (2016) added three more: social organizations and interactions, political power structures, and financial systems.

  4. 4.

    See Kaya and Erduran (2016).

  5. 5.

    The descriptive level of the FRA is explicitly recognized by Dagher and Erduran (2014): “One of the appealing aspects of the FRA is its ability to consolidate the epistemic, cognitive and social aspects of science in a wholesome, flexible, descriptive, but non-prescriptive way” (p. 24). In addition, although both approaches might include different activities in which students can participate, the outcome is predominantly a description.

  6. 6.

    See for instance Abd-El-Khalick and Akerson (2004), in which several variables were included, such as epistemological beliefs, emotional, affective, social and cultural factors, metacognitive reflections, discussions involving limitations of the students ideas, and comparisons between students explanations. The course also included variables such as pedagogical readings, scientific content, modelling activities, and science teaching methods. However, the authors did not know how the variables were related (p. 806), and waited for the experimental results to see what experience had to say, dealing with research in a quite positivist way. Positive results would confirm their hypotheses and negative ones would mean that something is lacking. For instance, students who had positive results confirm that conceptual change is a cognitive process and students with negative results “did little to compare and contrast target NoS views across contexts, and often conflated the meaning of key NoS terms with their vernacular connotations” (p. 806). These example indicates a strong reliance on experience and a lack of theoretical planning and interpretation.

  7. 7.

    This conception of language is common in the history of philosophy, appearing since Plato.

  8. 8.

    Philosophical Investigations (1953).

  9. 9.

    On Certainty (1969).

  10. 10.

    The referential use of language is also a possible way of using words.

  11. 11.

    Not to be confused with the common use of the word grammar as rules to form sentences.

  12. 12.

    The FRA stopped here. In this approach, the different meanings of concepts, such as experimentation, are taken into account. However, the grammar to which they pertain, is not. The four categories could represent an attempt to find a grammar, but that it is the same for every discipline and not coherent between them is a problem, as argued in the previous section.

  13. 13.

    The understanding of a language can occur in many levels.

  14. 14.

    These rules would be formed within the hypothetical, mathematical and empirical styles, respectively.

  15. 15.

    It is important to remember that the learning of a grammar occurs by following them in language-games and that it is not always possible to make them explicit.

  16. 16.

    For examples of themes, see Martins and Ryder (2015).

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Acknowledgements

The research presented in this paper were financed by the Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq, Grant Number 141369/2015-9) as part of the Programa Interunidades de Ensino de Ciências (CPGI).

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Correspondence to Maristela do Nascimento Rocha.

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do Nascimento Rocha, M., Gurgel, I. Descriptive Understandings of the Nature of Science: Examining the Consensual and Family Resemblance Approaches. Interchange 48, 403–429 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10780-017-9310-5

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Keywords

  • Nature of science
  • Wittgenstein
  • Consensus view
  • FRA
  • Knowledge
  • Understanding