Why Science Practices and the Nature of Science Matter

You can tell that I’m a major science education geek because I spent a good part of my recent vacation at the beach reading a book about science: The Golem, by Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch. There’s a copy of the book available online (jump to the brief conclusion if you want to get the essence of the book).

Collins and Pinch make an interesting argument about how “real science” is done. Because science on the cutting edge is so messy, in many cases experiment and evidence alone cannot resolve the debate. In these cases, “knowing more science” is not necessarily helpful, because the available facts can be interpreted in different ways. Similarly, in public debates involving science, simple knowledge of science content is not enough to be an informed citizen. Citizens must also understand how science is done- in the terms of the Next Generation Science Standards, they need to understand science practices including the nature of science. This is the only way to make sense not only of how some scientific ideas are well-established facts, but also why scientists are unable to come to consensus on some important ideas on the cutting edge. Collins and Pinch argue that it is often in these areas, where there is not a clear scientific consensus, where citizens must participate in public decision-making.

Ironically it may also be the lack of understanding of science practices and the nature of science that have resulted in current anti-science attitudes. Scientists are often portrayed in popular discussion as belonging to one of two categories: Gods (ie, all knowing) or charlatans (knowing nothing). The reality of course is neither- scientists are experts, similar in this way to other experts such as plumbers. To quote Collins and Pinch:

Plumbers are not perfect- far from it- but society is not beset with anti-plumbers because anti-plumbing is not a choice available to us. It is not a choice because the counter-choice, plumbing as immaculately conceived, is likewise not on widespread offer.

It may be the case that engaging in science practices and seeing the nature of science for themselves may not be the most efficient or useful way for students to learn science content. But while ultimately students need to understand the key facts of science, they also need to understand how scientific knowledge is constructed- for example, how the results of experiments must always be interpreted even in order to get the “right” answer (ie, achieve a result that is already well-understood to be correct). The only way to achieve this aim is to have students engage in real science themselves.

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