Knowledge, Belief, and Science Education

A Contribution from the Epistemology of Testimony


This article intends to show that the defense of “understanding” as one of the major goals of science education can be grounded on an anti-reductionist perspective on testimony as a source of knowledge. To do so, we critically revisit the discussion between Harvey Siegel and Alvin Goldman about the goals of science education, especially where it involves arguments based on the epistemology of testimony. Subsequently, we come back to a discussion between Charbel N. El-Hani and Eduardo Mortimer, on the one hand, and Michael Hoffmann, on the other, striving to strengthen the claim that rather than students’ belief change, understanding should have epistemic priority as a goal of science education. Based on these two lines of discussion, we conclude that the reliance on testimony as a source of knowledge is necessary to the development of a more large and comprehensive scientific understanding by science students.

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  1. 1.

    Considering the polysemous nature of the term “understanding,” we will limit its usage here to the perspective offered by Smith and Siegel (2004). As explained in more detail in Sect. 5, these authors propose four criteria that should be satisfied if we are to say that one understands a concept or idea: connectedness, sense-making, application, and justification.

  2. 2.

    There is a recent debate in epistemology on the distinction between “knowledge” and “understanding” around the idea of “epistemic value” (e.g., Elgin 2006), but we will not discuss this topic here.

  3. 3.

    One might argue that this is not an anti-reductionist argument, as reductionists are not committed to claiming that S’s belief that p is justified via T’s testimony only if S has independent reasons for believing that p (is true?). Reductionists claim—the argument continues—that in order for S’s testimonial belief that p to be justified, she must either have reason to trust the sort of testimony that T is giving in general or reason to trust T’s testimony in this particular case. However, this is already a weakened version of reductionism, appealing to the notion of a “sort” of testimony to counteract the criticisms of the reductionist position. But this does not represent the reductionist view in a more general sense. Here, we use the following more general notion of reductionism: “In contrast to non-reductionism, reductionists […] maintain that, in addition to the absence of undefeated defeaters, hearers must also possess non-testimonially based positive reasons in order to be justified in accepting the testimony of speakers (Lackey 2011, p. 319).” The version of reductionism used by Goldman (1999) is compatible with this more general version of reductionism. As our focus lies here on the debate between Goldman and Siegel, we will systematically use the term “reductionism” and derivatives to make reference to this version. Finally, it is important to notice that reductionist arguments about testimony are different from other types of reductionism commonly discussed in philosophy, for instance reductionism as a set of ontological, epistemological, and methodological claims about the relations between different scientific domains (Brigandt and Love 2015).

  4. 4.

    Even though the use of the term “never” in the GR enunciation is too strong for Siegel, he clearly assumes in his paper the thesis that the students typically have reasons that are independent from the testimony.

  5. 5.

    Evidently, we can also acquire information about the empirical world through experience, but, yet, a great deal of information we have about the latter comes from testimony.

  6. 6.

    A “cancelling condition” is any experienced situation that signals to the individual the imminent possibility of an error in the testimony, for example when he or she receives information that the individual who is providing the testimony was found lying in similar situations.

  7. 7.

    The expression “tone of voice” is used by us, following Gilbert Ryle (1949/1984), in order to indicate a specific semantic context. It indicates that the same speaker can use the same word to refer to different existence categories.

  8. 8.

    This is the same kind of problem found in the difference between the expressions “teaching science” and “teaching about science.”

  9. 9.

    Certainly, a key problem with religious science teachers is that several of them refuse to teach a given scientific theory, such as evolution, and often do not understand it or know a lot about it. To discuss this issue, however, would lead us away from our main focus in the article. Our view about it, however, is quite simple: to choose to be a science teacher is to choose a given social position, as part of a process of teaching the scientific perspective of the world, and if a teacher does not lend herself to play this expected social role, this will simply mean that she is inadequately placed in that role. Perhaps some people think this is controversial, but we regard it as quite a plain point: to go to the science classroom and refuse to teach a scientific theory (or, for that matter, to teach ideas at odds with scientific theories) is like going to the mass or service of worship pretending to be a priest or pastor and, instead of doing what is expected of oneself, teach a scientific theory such as evolution. Both situations are untenable for precisely the same reasons.

  10. 10.

    The original text is in Portuguese, and the passage has been freely translated into English by the authors of the article. Although Faria is dealing with the epistemic problem of memory in his article, the same example can be used in relation to both memory and testimony.


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We would like to thank Harvey Siegel, Ben McMyler, Michael Hoffmann, and two anonymous reviewers, who made valuable criticisms and comments on a previous version of this article, which greatly contributed to its improvement. We are also thankful to Nei Nunes-Neto, Rosileia Oliveira Almeida, Carlos Augusto Sartori, and Tiegue Vieira Rodrigues for their comments, which also contributed to improving the paper. We are also indebted to two anonymous reviewers who brought important contributions to the final version of the paper. We are thankful to the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) for the support to the research who led to this paper, through Grants Nos. 301259/2010-0 (CNEH) and 312567/2013-8 (WJSF). We also thank the Brazilian Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) for the Research Fellowship No. 002706/2015-06 (TASF).

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Correspondence to Charbel N. El-Hani.

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Ferreira, T.A.S., El-Hani, C.N. & da Silva-Filho, W.J. Knowledge, Belief, and Science Education. Sci & Educ 25, 775–794 (2016).

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