Towards a Refined Depiction of Nature of Science

Applications to Physics Education

Abstract

This study considers the short list of Nature of Science (NOS) features frequently published and widely known in the science education discourse. It is argued that these features were oversimplified and a refinement of the claims may enrich or sometimes reverse them. The analysis shows the need to address the range of variation in each particular aspect of NOS and to illustrate these variations with actual events from the history of science in order to adequately present the subject. Another implication of the proposal is the highlighting of the central role of science educators who, facing various strong claims of researchers in education and philosophy of science, often have difficulty in making a choice of what to teach about NOS. It is suggested that a representative variation with regard to the traditional NOS claims may be appropriate for a genuine understanding of the subject. In that, using the discipline-culture structure of the fundamental theories of physics and addressing the plurality of scientific methods may be helpful in the actual teaching and learning of NOS.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The problem is that the science curriculum normally skips over the epistemology of science and does not elaborate on the difference between syntactic and substantive knowledge. The pivotal role of philosophy of science in science education often remains in shade (Tseitlin & Galili 2006).

  2. 2.

    These are, for example, AAAS (1993)—Benchmarks for science literacy; NRC (1996)—National Science Education Standards; NSTA (2000)—National Science Teachers Association position statement.

  3. 3.

    This is often the situation in many countries. Kampourakis (2017) pointed to the problem in a wider scope including faculty members in science departments.

  4. 4.

    There is some similarity of the considered list to the list published in the past by Kimbal (1968). Erduran and Dagher (2014) mentioned other lists containing similar features. The list by Lederman and colleagues has been promoted since 1998 (Abd-El-Khalick, Bell, Lederman 1998).

  5. 5.

    We coded them as L1-L5: L1—for Lederman et al. 2002; L2—for Lederman 2006; L3—for Lederman 2007; L4—Lederman et al. 2014; and L5—Lederman et al. 2015.

  6. 6.

    A clear complementarity of the two approaches to scientific knowledge—the worldview versus the practical importance—has accompanied science from its dawn (e.g., Matthews 2009). For a striking example, one may compare the intentions of Newton (1686/2016) expressed in his Preface to the Principia with its Marxist analysis by Hessen (1933). This opposition is permanently observed in science education: holistic conceptual understanding versus practical problem-solving; theory-based (“worldview”) versus modeling-based (“practical science”) curricula orientation; nominal versus operational concept definitions and so on.

  7. 7.

    Bohr chose the claim “opposites are complementary” for his coat of arm. Since the Renaissance, complementarity has become emblematic of science (Galili 2013).

  8. 8.

    Literal understanding may mislead regarding NOS. “Anything goes” by Feyerabend (1993, p. 241) in his “against method” critique does not mean a lack of any methodology. “How the Laws of Physics Lie” by Cartwright (1983) does not mean that physics laws are untrue. “Science without laws” by Giere (1988) does not presume that one may manage without laws. A close view in each case shows that they should be understood in a specific way. For instance, van Fraassen (1980, pp. 8, 12) defined scientific knowledge as anti-realistic (being empirically verified but not literally true). Scientists often disagree with the label “anti-realist,” and they often agree with constructive materialism when introduced to its claim. The difference between conceptual and material realisms is often not known to science teachers for whom the claim of scientists as being anti-realistic presents an oxymoron.

  9. 9.

    Einstein’s (1973) saying “do not listen to their words, fix your attention on their deeds” may be helpful but not sufficient. Practitioners are often not familiar with the pertinent conceptual discourse but may quickly be introduced into it being challenged by the claims regarding NOS.

  10. 10.

    The L-list of NOS features was not hierarchical. Therefore, in order to simplify our treatment, we have made a single change in the original order—the fourth claim regarding the subjective nature of scientific knowledge is addressed here first for its central importance and implications for the rest of the features.

  11. 11.

    Several authors, while citing the list, corrected this point without even mentioning the inaccuracy of the original claim. They stated subjectivity as being theory-laden. Here, we address both aspects separately as the L-lists deserve. The claim of subjectivity of physics knowledge contradicts the situation in introductory physics around the globe. We never saw such a claim in hundreds of physics textbooks and supporting materials examined.

  12. 12.

    For example, Losee 1993; Longino 1990; Couvalis 1997; Godfrey-Smith 2003, pp. 6, 229.

  13. 13.

    One may clarify here the difference between objectivity and inter-subjectivity. Some scholars do not grant scientific knowledge more than being intersubjective which literally means being a product of agreement among scholars, community (“conventionalism”). We consider this feature insufficient, since being agreed does not mean, although some might presume so, multiple empirical many-staged verifications on which such agreement draws in science and which present a core requirement of objectivity. The procedure of reaching objectivity must include both aspects—(b) and (c).

  14. 14.

    Kuhn stated that the adopted theory may preserve some idiosyncratic features. He rejected, however, the claim that he deprived science of objectivity in its “standard application” as opposed to the “matter of taste” which is subjective and undiscussable (ibid. p. 336).

  15. 15.

    The use of the notion theory in these resources is different from the meaning of theory as a counterpart to practice, experiment, and experience, and is neither a synonym for abstract nor hypothetical. Theory in science may signify an inclusive cluster of coherent knowledge elements organized in hierarchical structure. This use as a structural whole is close to that described by Giere (1985, p. 16; 1999, pp. 97–99) and is common in science and the philosophy of science (e.g., Chalmers 1976, Ch. 7, 8).

  16. 16.

    Heidegger defined science as a theory of what is actually real (Kockelmans, 1985 p. 162) implying natural science to be a theory of nature.

  17. 17.

    It is helpful, in this regard, to see the contrast with such areas as religion where to be subjective is presented as a goal of mature knowledge (Kierkegaard 2009).

  18. 18.

    We address here neither the truth of the theory nor the certainty of scientific knowledge that is distinguished from the objective nature of the scientific knowledge as impersonal and involuntary.

  19. 19.

    RGB in modern terms

  20. 20.

    We quote from the article by Shapiro (1984) depicting Newton’s Optical Lectures of 1670–1672.

  21. 21.

    A very simple example: the claim that the “Sun is rising in the East” is an objective claim. Its correctness, however, depends on the frame of reference, geocentric or heliocentric.

  22. 22.

    Here, the notions of theory and model are used within the discipline-culture framework (Tseitlin and Galili 2005, Galili 2017). As elaborated below, the notion of theory is often used in physics to represent an inclusive cluster of knowledge elements (e.g., the theory of classical mechanics). Possessing such a structure, theory includes models of different kinds in all areas of its structure. Considered as discipline-culture, the Geocentric Theory of the solar system includes various geocentric models.

  23. 23.

    Goodman (1968, p. 251) put it as follows: “Indeed, in any science, while the requisite objectivity forbids wishful thinking, prejudicial reading of evidence, rejection of unwanted results, avoidance of ominous lines of inquiry, it does not forbid use of feeling in exploration and discovery, the impetus of inspiration and curiosity, or the cues given by excitement over intriguing problems and promising hypotheses.” Nersessian (1992) termed this stage as the context of development.

  24. 24.

    Laudan introduced a parallel pair, pursuit and acceptance (Laudan 1977; Godfrey-Smith 2003, pp.108–109)

  25. 25.

    In contrast, Duschl and Granny (2013) stated that the two contexts might be interwoven: “What occurs in science is neither predominantly the context of discovery nor the context of justification but the intermediary contexts of theory development and conceptual modification.” However, even their being interwoven does not dismiss the high validity of recognizing the two aspects of knowledge creation as different with respect to the status of objectivity.

  26. 26.

    Panofsky and Phillips (1955, p. 240) illustrated the process of justification of the special theory of relativity. Five of the rival theories successfully accounted for the zero result of the Michelson-Morley experiment, but only Einstein’s theory could explain all 13 different experiments performed by different researchers. Actually, criticism of the Einstein theory of relativity never stopped.

  27. 27.

    Hodson (2011, pp. 111–112) quoted Mitroff who already in 1974 depicted science in terms of Particularism, Solitariness, Interestedness, and Non-rationality as better characterizing the reality than the universalism, disinterestedness, and rationality proclaimed by Merton (1973). The argumentation provided by Mitroff, however, addressed the context of inquiry.

  28. 28.

    There is an extensive discussion of the objective nature of quantum mechanics (e.g., Heisenberg, 1965; Popper 1967; Bunge 1967a; Cushing 1994; Agazzi 2014).

  29. 29.

    Besides concepts, the units used to measure physical quantities do not draw any more on the directly measured kg, m, and sec. They have been elicited through sophisticated theoretical accounts from the world constants h, c, and e considered now as fundamental.

  30. 30.

    As mentioned already, Heidegger defined science (the whole science!) as a theory of what is actually real (Kockelmans 1985, p. 162) implying natural science to be a theory of nature.

  31. 31.

    Kuhn (1969) used the terms constellation or disciplinary matrix when he addressed a theory.

  32. 32.

    This law which states the friction between two surfaces to be proportional to the pressing force between them regardless the areas in contact was introduced by Leonardo but seldom called by his name. Instead, if at all, it may be attributed to Amonton, the French scholar of the seventeenth c. (e.g., Persson 1998, pp. 10–11)

  33. 33.

    The nature of physics knowledge was addressed by the metaphor of “patchwork” (Cartwright 1994) and the claim of Giere (1988) “Close inspection, I think, reveals that they are neither universal nor necessary – they are not even true” (p. 128). Physics laws do not “lie” as Cartwright wrote (1983), but are valid each in their particular areas of validity (e.g., Heisenberg 1948; Einstein, 1989). The patchwork metaphor is inappropriate: the theory of general relativity is valid in the area of classical mechanics but not vice versa. Newton’s law of gravitation works on the leaning tower in Pisa but not in quasars, while Einstein’s theory of gravitation works in both. Quantum mechanics works in the macro-world but Newtonian mechanics does not work in the micro-world. In short, the scenario of simple division is wrong.

  34. 34.

    This approach is termed Abbe optical theory (Hecht 1998, pp. 602–604).

  35. 35.

    For example, Tipler 1987, pp. 184–186; Serway et al. 2005, pp. 180–182. The reference to the original experiment by Taylor in 1909 is rare (Rabinowitz 2017).

  36. 36.

    This model essentially refines the traditional claim (e.g., Nagel 1961) that a more advanced theory (such special relativity) subsumes, under ceteris paribus reservations, its predecessor (such as classical mechanics), and emphasizing incommensurability of the fundamentals (Kuhn 1970) in parallel with commensurability of the correspondent numerical accounts.

  37. 37.

    Such elements as the friction, elasticity, non-conservative forces, and Ohm’s laws are formally irreducible to the nuclei axioms. They appear as emergent properties, obtained as empirical laws. They point to the conceptual incompleteness of the particular theory but do not prevent its validity in the certain area of parameters.

  38. 38.

    We teach theories in class not in the form that these theories were historically introduced. Indeed, Newtonian mechanics did not include energy, Mendeleev’s periodic law did not draw on electronic structure, and Darwin did not justify selection of species by genetic rules (e.g., Dagher and Erduran 2014).

  39. 39.

    Of course, we are talking here about the cases of well-established theoretical knowledge and not about fundamental research. This fact, however, does not remove the validity of the claim of economy of thought in science: automatic repetitive use of scientific algorithms. Scientists can proceed with their research only because they do not check every product they use in their inquiry. In that, they draw heavily on the authority of the resource they use. The situation changes only in case of failure.

  40. 40.

    Ironically, the first critique of the “discovery” of the gravitational force instead of its invention as an abstract tool was due to the Irish philosopher Berkeley (e.g., Popper 1962, p.109).

  41. 41.

    Kuhn (1969, pp. 197–198) discusses the same point when considering the pair of perception-interpretation of something, cemented together by the tacit knowledge of the explorer.

  42. 42.

    Einstein (1934a) called it “the eternal antithesis of the two inseparable constituents of human knowledge, Experience and Rationale, within the sphere of physics.” This symbiosis is epitomized in representative artistic images to show in science classes as a logo of science, its nature (Appendix 1).

  43. 43.

    The further complexity of this claim we briefly address in Appendix 2.

  44. 44.

    A very similar claim was made by another Nobelist, Leon Lederman (1998, p. 132), who stated categorically: “We believe that there is only one science, not Western, not indigenous, not even Maori. Its origins may be traced to the Ionian Greek civilization, and it flowered in Europe in the seventeenth century.”

  45. 45.

    Here is a contemporary example. A vast body of literature documented the tragic reality of Soviet science during Stalin’s regime and the brutal pressure of the social environment, including physical elimination, torturing, and imprisonment of numerous scientists (Gorelik and Frenkel 1994; Gorelik and Bouis 2005; Ginzburg 2005). In spite of this, the scientists there managed to produce results universally valid regardless of the nightmares they faced, being committed to the universal scientific norms for argumentation and creating objective, socially independent products (Josephson and Sorokin 2017). By contrast, when the subjective social demand penetrated scientific content, as happened in the Lysenko case (Lamarckian paradigm) where Stalin destroyed the opponents, the product was pseudoscience, not science (Birstein 2001). In an interesting parallel with education, the entrance of social, subjective factors may cause pretending social behavior and pseudoconceptual understanding on behalf of students (Vinner 1997).

  46. 46.

    In Soviet Russia, genetics and cybernetics were considered to be bourgeois pseudoscience or “capitalistic” products. The development of these areas of objective knowledge was thus suppressed in Russia for many years but eventually overcame.

  47. 47.

    We limit our discussion to science, arguing using scientific theories, but technology is not different in this perspective. Think about the striking difference in all aspects of social environment and ideology between the USA, USSR, China, Pakistan, and Northern Korea. Despite the differences, practically the same scientific and technological products were created—the atomic weapon and rocketry, for instance.

  48. 48.

    We skip here another important claim of cultural influence on scientific content, for instance, in Marxist perspective. To illustrate, it was claimed that Newton’s Principia was actually the answer to the needs of England in constructing canals and locks, problems of chronometry in navigation, etc. (Hessen 1933, p. 30, 62). In our view, it does not change our argument of social independence of the scientific contents.

  49. 49.

    We refer to Popper in this regard and not to other philosophers of the past, such as Hume (1739/1978), who expressed a similar criticism to replacing the cause-effect based necessity relationship in human claims with experience based inferences of merely probability. Popper addressed science in a more inclusive and mature way.

  50. 50.

    In religious Judeo-Christian literature, the knowledge of ultimate truth is labeled gnosis. In similar sense, in Soviet Russia, all students learned gnoseology that apparently replaced epistemology.

  51. 51.

    It is, however, not a divorce from philosophy but rather a recognition of complex relationship (Russell 1912/1990). Bunge wrote: “What is obvious to the practitioner of a science may be problematic to its philosopher” (Bunge 1973, p. 28). Why, then, not ignore philosophy? Bunge answered, “Ignore all philosophy and you will be the slave of one bad philosophy” (Bunge 1967b, p. 261) and elaborated (Bunge 2000, p. 461), “Physics cannot dispense with philosophy, just as the latter does not advance if it ignores physics and the other sciences. … Science and sound (i.e., scientific) philosophy overlap partially and consequently they can interact fruitfully. Without philosophy, science loses in depth; and without science philosophy stagnates.” The clarification of the difference between episteme and gnosis may illustrate the importance of philosophy for science education and the different context of their activity.

  52. 52.

    This perspective may resolve the confusion of those who do recognize the progress of science but do not see it approaching the truth about nature (Kuhn 1970, p. 170). The approach of science is not linear but multifaceted in different aspects of truth revealed in greater and deeper extent by several fundamental theories.

  53. 53.

    As a rule, the Nobel Prize is not provided for a theoretical contribution, unless it was proven empirically: thus, in Medicine of 1945, awarded for the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect that saved the lives of millions and proved the theory of immunology; likewise, the Nobel Prize in Physics of 2017, given for the observation of gravitational waves that added another proof of correctness of the Theory of General Relativity.

  54. 54.

    Physics teachers prove Kepler’s laws, work-energy theorem, Bernoulli equation, Galileo’s claims regarding projectiles and so on and so forth from the endless list of examples of proving in physics class. Physics textbooks are abundant with proofs/demonstrations.

  55. 55.

    By being proved the textbooks (and so the teachers) normally mean revealing the mechanism by which the considered claim is coherent with certain fundamental physical theory, its principles (nucleus). The proving procedure may include theoretical and/or empirical activities. The textbooks apparently aim to the context of disciplinary education addressing the established rational knowledge (episteme) rather than philosophical debate regarding the absolute truth (gnosis).

  56. 56.

    For example, Losee 1993, pp. 120–136; Gower 1997; Lakatos 1999, pp. 19–108; Betz 2011. See Appendix 3 for an artistic illustration of the scientific method as emerged in antiquity. Furthermore, the well-defined scientific method does not imply a simple demarcation in any scientific context. Thus, the context of inquiry may violate the strict rules, which, however, emerge later on as unavoidable in the context of justification, considered above.

  57. 57.

    We consider as important pedagogy the strengthening of the specific features of the scientific approach to knowledge production rather than stating that “the same methods are used by all effective problem-solvers” and that “science is no different from other human endeavors when puzzles are investigated” (McComas 1998). Similarity and adoption of scientific method in other areas of activity should not bring the learner to missing the identity of the scientific method.

  58. 58.

    See Kuhn (1957) and Lakatos (1998) with regard to astrology, Read (1995) for alchemy, Birstein (2001) for the Lysenko case, Huizenga (1993) for cold fusion, and Roob (2001) for mysticism. Each case was analyzed and contrasted with the scientific methodology. The split from science often followed periods of interwoven activities. Astrology and mysticism went a long way with astronomy. The claim of correspondence and relationship between macro-cosmos (the world) and micro-cosmos (the human organism) considered scientific for centuries.

  59. 59.

    A special issue we should mention here is the violation of ethics in medical investigations such as Nazi medical experiments which led to the establishment of the Nuremberg code for such experimentation (https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/en).

  60. 60.

    See, for example, Neugebauer (1993) for Babylonian and Egyptian science, Berry (1961) and Dreyer (1953) for Hellenic astronomy, Russo (2004) for Hellenistic science, Pedersen and Pihl (1974) for medieval science, and Kepler (1621/1972) and Gorham et al. (2016) for modern science. Galili (2018).

  61. 61.

    It is clearly observed in the actively progressing disciplinary areas such as quantum chemistry, physical chemistry, and molecular biology.

  62. 62.

    It is different from Darwinian evolution (Toulmin 1972, pp. 140–141) and rather corresponds to the perspective of historical materialism elucidated by Popper’s vision of sequential dialectical conjectures and refutations. The reciprocal evolution changes the participants, the researchers, and their knowledge, in the process of conceptual progress. To describe such reciprocal change, Paget introduced the complementary aspects of assimilation and accommodation.

  63. 63.

    This way, Mach (1883/1989), Einstein and Infeld (1938), Taylor (1941), Glashow (1994) depicted the history of science.

  64. 64.

    An anecdotal evidence is due to George Feher, Wolf Prize winner for understanding photosynthesis. Answering why he was successful where others failed, Feher said that, as a physicist, he carried out his study with the simplest bacteria instead of investigating the emblematic object performing photosynthesis—a tree leaf, which is a much more complex.

  65. 65.

    If natural sciences present elective courses in high school curriculum, students often chose one of the science disciplines, sometimes, excluding physics. Such arrangement contradicts the presented perspective on the required complementarity of simple and complex to appreciate NOS.

  66. 66.

    Duschl and Grandy (2013) mentioned the development of the philosophy of science as possessing three periods focusing on (1) epistemology, (2) scientific knowledge as social phenomenon, and (3) scientific practices—naturalized epistemology. Apparently, all three perspectives are required in constructing the big picture of science.

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Appendices

Appendix 1

Images may effectively facilitate science teaching and presentation to wide audience. Art provides appealing images of the symbiotic relationship of Reason and Experience as the essential feature of knowledge and method in science (Galili 2013). Such is Rafael’s renowned collective portrait of The School of Athens (1501). The fresco in the Vatican has as its focus two figures of the founders of natural philosophy, Plato and Aristotle, who present through their gestures Reason (Rationality) and Experience (Empiricism) symbolizing their symbiosis in science (Fig. 7a).

Fig. 7
figure7

a schematic reproduction of the fragment of Rafael’s The School of Athens (1501) in the Vatican. b Knowledge creation in the anonymous picture in Seoul National Museum. (Arrows are added for emphasis)

Fig. 8
figure8

(a) Representation of a theories contest in cosmology as depicted on the front page of the book by Riccioli (1651). (b) The fragment presents the scientific method “Numerus, Mensura, Pondus” (Number, Measure, Weight) adopted from the Book of Wisdom (11:21) of the 1st century

Another image of Far East art is on display in the National Museum of Seoul. It employs similar symbolism of the idea of cosmic complementarity in a no less appealing way (Fig. 7b). The two components are represented by the interwoven figures symbolizing the Earthly and Heavenly origins, rationality and experience. The right-angle tool symbolizes the Earth, considered to be of rectangular shape by Eastern scholars in the past. The compasses represent rationality since the Heavens were considered to be of a round shape. The Korean image is even stronger, showing the intertwined basis of the two figures possibly referring to the emergence in process.

Appendix 2

The essential independence of social environment does not dismiss the question why, despite the international nature of scientific enterprise at the present time, it was invented in Greece and nowhere else; why modern science was developed in Europe two thousand years later, not in other places. Why the long intellectual tradition of interest in nature in China and India did not achieve a similar outcome? This question is known as the Needham Question (Needham 2004; Sivin 2005; Gorelik 2012; Goren and Galili 2018). As a possible answer, we may mention that human history, being one whole comprised of interacting components, prevents isolated paths of development which could need more time for otherwise independent growth. It is enough for one trend to develop faster than another, for any reason, that its products would influence scholars in other societies preventing their original inventions and thus dragging them to adopt the trend of others with respect to consolidation of specific scientific knowledge. Adoption, repeating and copying methods and discoveries through learning from others, are much easier way than developing original conceptual construction. This reality can undermine cultural originality and can cause a collective universal mode of scientific knowledge development by humankind.

Appendix 3

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Galili, I. Towards a Refined Depiction of Nature of Science. Sci & Educ 28, 503–537 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-019-00042-4

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Keywords

  • Nature of science
  • Context of science education
  • Conceptual variation
  • Discipline-culture
  • Science epistemology and method