The Importance of Understanding the Nature of Science

by Quinn O'Neill

Science and technology play increasingly important roles in our lives. Advances in medicine, transportation, and communications have made life a lot easier but at the same time contribute to new problems like pollution, habitat loss, and dwindling resources. Our best chances for overcoming these problems may also lie in science and in an improved understanding of our natural world. B:b

Most people probably realize that understanding science is important – at least for scientists – but scientists as well as members of the public may not fully appreciate the importance of understanding the Nature of Science (NOS) – that is, the nature of scientific knowledge and the processes that generate it. We’re so accustomed to science being part of our lives that we take for granted that everyone knows what it is. But they don’t. Studies have shown that NOS misconceptions are prevalent among high school and college students and even among teachers (Lederman, 2007).

Many people view science as a body of rigid, unchangeable facts and it’s hard to blame them – after all, most of us learned science as if this were the case. We were given text books and lectured to as if to say “here’s what we know, it’s all true, just memorize it”. Of course, much of the content of text books, at least at high school and undergraduate levels, is fairly basic and well-established, but learning it from a book or a lecture doesn’t teach us much about the scientific process.

So what is science then? Nova Education recently asked Dr. William McComas, a prominent researcher in science education, and he provided a very nice answer. Here are some of the key points:

  • Science produces, demands and relies on empirical evidence
  • Experiments are not the only route to knowledge
  • Science uses both inductive reasoning and hypothetico-deductive testing
  • Scientists make observations and produce inferences
  • There is no single step-wise scientific method by which all science is done
  • Science has a creative component
  • Observations, ideas and conclusions in science are not entirely objective
  • Historical, cultural and social influences impact the practice and direction of science
  • Scientific knowledge is tentative, durable and self-correcting

I have nothing to add to McComas's explanation, except that I think it's really important for people to understand. Why? Because NOS misconceptions may underlie rejection of science and because the nature of science is also essentially the nature of progress.

NOS misconceptions may contribute to rejection of science

Despite our heavy reliance on science, anti-science sentiment is widely prevalent. Evolutionary theory, for example, which is among our best supported scientific theories and accepted almost unanimously within the scientific community, is rejected by a considerable portion of Americans, Canadians, and Brits. NOS misconceptions may contribute to this rejection. People who view scientific knowledge as arising solely from experimentation and direct observation may think evolutionary theory is unscientific since it can’t really be tested in a laboratory and no one has observed humans evolving from their ancestors.

But science can also mean piecing together evidence to arrive at a plausible explanation, like a detective reconstructing a crime on the basis of clues. The detective’s understanding of what took place may undergo revision in light of new evidence, but he can nevertheless be pretty sure about some things. With finger prints, DNA evidence, a motive, and the suspect’s skin under the victim’s fingernails, we could develop a pretty good idea of what took place without having witnessed the crime.

Some researchers have found that people who view knowledge as rigid and absolute are less likely to accept evolution than those who view it as subject to revision (Sinatra et al, 2003). This makes sense in light of developments that are constantly being reported in the media – species get moved to different branches of phylogenetic trees, evolutionary events are dated earlier or later than initially thought, etc. As a means of providing absolute, unchanging truths, science sucks. If I thought that’s what science were supposed to do, I’d reject it too.

The media seems to love pointing out ways in which “Darwin was wrong” as if this refutes all of evolutionary biology. On the contrary, our recognition of deficiencies in Darwin’s views reflect progress in our understanding of evolution since his time.

The self-correcting nature of science gives it an edge over other knowledge systems. The discovery that the earth isn’t at the center of the universe wasn’t well received by the Catholic church. After all, according to the bible, “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” Most people, regardless of religious ideology, now accept that the earth orbits the sun, but adherence to literal interpretations of the bible in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence is not yet behind us.

Religion and science are often described as “different ways of knowing”, as if to imply that they’re different but on equal footing. While they’re both ways of “thinking we know”, as are intuition and just making stuff up, science, in my opinion, constitutes the superior knowledge system. My preference is based largely on the changeable nature of the knowledge produced. If I viewed science as a collection of indisputable facts, I too might reject it in its entirety, since any revision of any scientific view would seem to call into question the validity of science as a whole. Flexibility is a big plus. If you continually revise your position as weaknesses come to light, you ensure that your position remains sensible. Since change is necessary for progress and progress is a good thing, a knowledge system that allows for change is a better one.

Research suggests that appreciating the changeability of knowledge is a factor in science acceptance. Sinatra and colleagues found that evolution accepters were more likely to agree with the statement “I believe that laws and social policies should change to reflect the needs of a changing world” and less likely to agree with the statement “Changing your mind is a sign of weakness” (2003).

Heated arguments routinely bubble up at the science-religion interface. The religious side typically argues for a position that is thoroughly contradicted by logic and empirical evidence and the science side typically presents logic and empirical evidence, while ignoring evidence presented by the religious side – not evidence that supports their position, but evidence that they aren’t basing their views on empiricism and reason.

Such arguments typically focus on the conclusion – whether there is or isn’t a God or whether evolutionary theory is true or false. But it would seem that the disagreement is more fundamental – it’s not about the answer to the question, but about how to find the answer. It’s like two people arguing over whether a suspect is guilty or innocent, with one person basing his views on physical evidence and the other basing his on a dream he had. The dreamer would have to be convinced that physical evidence offers a more reliable means of reaching a verdict before the evidence would be persuasive. When it comes to choosing a system of knowledge, people need to understand their options in order to make a good decision. People need to understand the nature of scientific knowledge and how it’s generated if they are to choose science as their preferred “way of knowing”.

The nature of science is also the nature of progress

We usually think of science as a means of generating knowledge in fields like biology or physics, but the same processes can be applied to pretty much anything in the natural realm. For example, we can apply an evidence-based approach to educational practices and conduct studies to compare students’ learning through lecture-style methods and hands-on activities. Using this kind of evidence as a guide to decision-making improves the odds that changes we make will be for the better.

The process of questioning and critically examining our views and practices, testing them, and rejecting or revising them accordingly yields improvement. Changing our views in light of new information isn’t a sign of weakness or cause for embarrassment – it’s why we have more advanced technologies than we had in the past, why we can cure diseases that were once incurable, why women can now vote and why we no longer burn heretics. The process of critically examining and changing our views and positions should be celebrated. It lies at the heart of human progress.

Looking at some of our views and practices in the past, we can see that we’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. A very small percentage of the population holds most of the wealth while huge segments live in squalor and struggle to meet their most basic needs. We invest obscene amounts of money in killing and dominating other groups and we lock up and torture people who expose war crimes. And things cost more for people who have less money – even education, which ought to be had by all, can end up costing twice as much for people who have to borrow to pay for it. All this seems backward to me.

I think it’s time to critically examine our social systems and current practices and equip the next generation with the tools they’ll need build something better. These tools come with a solid science education that instills a spirit of inquiry, but not with rigid truths.

I have found the missing link between the higher ape and civilized man; it is we. ~Konrad Lorenz


Lederman, N.G. (2007). Nature of science: Past, present, and future. In S. K. Abell & N. G. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook of research on science education (pp. 831-880). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

McComas, W. F. (2008). Proposals for Core Nature of Science Content in Popular Books on the History and Philosophy of Science: Lessons for Science Education. In Lee, Y. J. & Tan, A. L. (Eds.) Science education at the nexus of theory and practice. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Sinatra, G. M., Southerland, S. A., McConaughy, F., and Demastes, J. W. (2003). Intentions and beliefs in students' understanding and acceptance of biological evolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 40(5), 510-528.

Image source: The Telegraph