What Makes Science 'Science'?

Trainee teachers don't have a clue, and most scientists probably don't either. That's bad news.

Oct 1, 2008
James Williams
<figcaption> Credit: ® Alexander Fedorov</figcaption>
Credit: ® Alexander Fedorov

As a science educator, I train science graduates to become science teachers. Over the past two years I've surveyed their understanding of key terminology and my findings reveal a serious problem. Graduates, from a range of science disciplines and from a variety of universities in Britain and around the world, have a poor grasp of the meaning of simple terms and are unable to provide appropriate definitions of key scientific terminology. So how can these hopeful young trainees possibly teach science to children so that they become scientifically literate? How will school-kids learn to distinguish the questions and problems that science can answer from those that science cannot and, more importantly, the difference between science and pseudoscience?

Here are some of the data from the 74 graduates that I've surveyed to date:

• 76% equated a fact with 'truth' and 'proven'

• 23% defined a theory as 'unproven ideas' with less than half (47%) recognizing a theory as a well evidenced exposition of a natural phenomenon

• 34% defined a law as a rule not to be broken, and forty-one percent defined it as an idea that science fully supports.

• Definitions of 'hypothesis' were the most consistent, with 61% recognizing the predictive, testable nature of hypotheses.

The results show a lack of understanding of what scientific theories and laws are. And the nature of a 'fact' in science was not commonly understood, with only 11% defining a fact as evidence or data. Here are just a few of their definitions of a scientific theory: "An idea based on a little evidence, not fact"; "an idea about something, not necessarily true"; "unproven ideas."

Some of the graduates implicitly or explicitly equated theories with hypotheses. For example, one defined a theory as "not necessarily proven correct. A hypothesized statement explaining something." Another defined a hypothesis as "a theory needing investigation," another stated that a hypothesis was "a theory based on knowledge" and yet another as a "theory proven by experiment." Conversely, one graduate defined a theory as "a large hypothesis." Another definition separated out a theory from experimental science by defining it as "the paperwork behind observations, such as literature that tries to rationalize observations and experiments."

Here's why these responses are problematic: Given the numerous news stories that require an understanding of how science operates - global warming, cloning, the possible dangers posed by cell phones or the pros and cons of genetically modified crops - understanding the difference between a fully fledged scientific theory that is backed by evidence and accepted by the scientific community and a speculative guess is essential. If we, as scientists, cannot teach children what these words mean in a scientific context, how can we hope to improve scientific literacy generally? If science graduates are confused to begin with, then it is an uphill battle.

Only a few of the graduates had studied any history and philosophy of science, and therein lies the problem. The majority had high quality degrees and some had doctorates in a science discipline, so it wasn't that they were not well qualified in science. It was just that their study of science had been utilitarian, a means to an end with the end being a practicing scientist. They had not been given any grounding or instruction on what makes science 'science.' It was not their fault: history and philosophy of science was an optional part of their degree programs and many could not see the point of it.

The point is this: you must understand your discipline, know its foundations so you are able to defend it from attack by those who seek to hijack science for their own ends, such as climate change deniers, GM modification scaremongers, or creationists. A basic course in the history and philosophy of science should be a compulsory element of an undergraduate degree in any science discipline.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex.