Myths of the nature of science
People have ideas about science based on personal experiences, previous education, popular media and peer culture. Many of these ideas are commonly held misconceptions or myths about the nature of science. Here are some of the more common myths that are problematic in science education.
Myth: The scientific method
Myth: Experiments are the main route to scientific knowledge
Myth: Science and its methods can answer all questions
Myth: Science proves ideas
Myth: Science ideas are absolute and unchanging
Myth: Science is a solitary pursuit
Myth: Science is procedural more than creative
Myth: Scientists are particularly objective
Myth: Scientific conclusions are reviewed by others for accuracy
Myth: Acceptance of new scientific knowledge is straightforward
Myth: Science models ‘are real’
Myth: A hypothesis is an educated guess
Myth: Hypotheses become theories that, in turn, become laws
Perhaps the most commonly held myth about the nature of science is that there is a universal scientific method, with a common series of steps that scientists follow. The steps usually include defining the problem, forming a hypothesis, making observations, testing the hypothesis, drawing conclusions and reporting results. In classrooms, students can be seen writing up the aim, hypothesis, method, results and conclusion.
In reality there is no single method of science. Scientific inquiry is not a matter of following a set of rules. It is fluid, reflexive, context dependent and unpredictable. Scientists approach and solve problems in lots of different ways using imagination, creativity, prior knowledge and perseverance.
Experiments are certainly a useful tool in science but they are not the main route to knowledge. True experiments involve a range of carefully controlled procedures accompanied by control and test groups and usually have as a primary goal the establishment of a cause and effect relationship.
Science does involve investigation of some sort, but experiments are just one of many different approaches used. In a number of science disciplines, such as geology, cosmology or medicine, experiments are either not possible, insufficient, unnecessary or unethical, So science also relies on approaches such as basic observations (such as astronomy) and historical exploration (such as paleontology and evolutionary biology).
Science has achieved many amazing things, but it is not a cure-all for all the problems in society. Although it can provide some insights that may inform debate, science cannot answer ethical, moral, aesthetic, social and metaphysical questions. For instance, science and the resulting technology may be able to clone mammals, but other knowledge is needed (cultural, sociological and philosophical) to decide whether such cloning is moral and ethical. Not all questions can be investigated in a scientific manner
Popular media often talks about ‘scientific proof’. However, accumulated evidence can never provide absolute proof – it can only ever provide support. A single negative finding, if confirmed, is enough to overturn a scientific hypothesis or theory. Rather than being proven ‘once and for all’, a hallmark of science is that it is subject to revision when new information is presented or when existing information is viewed in a new light.
Some ideas in science are so well established and reliable and so well supported by accumulated evidence that they are unlikely to be thrown out, but even these ideas may be modified by new evidence or by the reinterpretation of existing evidence. Science knowledge is durable, but not absolute or fixed – a critical feature of science is that it is self-correcting – so we say that scientific knowledge is tentative. This can be most easily seen at the cutting edge of research and in areas like health and medicine where ideas may change as scientists try to figure out which explanations are the most accurate.
This myth fits the stereotypical image of a lone scientist working alone in a laboratory. In reality, only rarely does a scientific idea arise in the mind of an individual scientist to be validated by the individual alone and then accepted by the scientific community. The process of science is much more often the result of collaboration of a group of scientists. Most research takes too long, is too expensive and needs more knowledge and expertise than an individual scientist working alone. The Science Learning Hub repeatedly shows this collaboration.
Many students see science as following a series of steps and being dry, uninspiring and unimaginative. The opposite is true. Creativity is found in all aspects of scientific research, from coming up with a question, creating a research design, interpreting and making sense of findings or looking at old data in new ways. Creativity is absolutely critical to science.
We often assume scientists are always objective, but scientists do not bring empty heads to their research. Their background knowledge, experiences and the existing concepts they hold mean they can’t be objective. Like all observers, they have a myriad of preconceptions and biases that they will bring to every observation and interpretation they make.
If we confront the world with an empty head, then our experiences will be deservedly meaningless. Experience does not give concepts meaning. If anything, concepts give experience meaning.
David Theobald, 1968.
Limited research funds and time constraints do not allow for professional scientists to be constantly reviewing each other’s experiments. If experiments are repeated, it is usually because a conclusion has been reached that is outside the current paradigm. However, ideas and methods are critiqued before and during publication and acceptance. Ideas and methods are debated and shared in the workplace, at conferences and in scientific journals.
The process of building knowledge in science is often portrayed as procedural, routine and unproblematic – leading unambiguously and inevitably to ‘proven science’. The way science investigations and findings are reported can reinforce this myth. However, it is impossible to make all observations relevant to a given situation, for all time – past, present and future – and there is always a creative leap from evidence to scientific knowledge. New interpretations for evidence are not automatically accepted by the scientific community.
A new idea that is not too far from the expectations of scientists working in a particular field would probably be accepted and published in scientific journals, but if the idea appears to be a significant breakthrough or is rather radical, its acceptance is by no means straightforward. Some examples of scientific ideas that were originally rejected because they fell outside the accepted paradigm include the Sun-centred solar system, the germ theory of disease and continental drift.
Models are just explanations of perceived representations of reality. A good example is the particle theory of matter, which pictures atoms and molecules as tiny discrete balls that have elastic collisions. This is a model that explains a whole range of phenomena, but no one has actually ever seen these tiny balls. The model is useful and it works as a means to explain and to predict a phenomenon.
Everyday use of the word ‘hypothesis’ means an intelligent guess. For science, it can be misunderstood to mean an assumption made before doing an experiment or an idea not yet confirmed by an experiment. A better definition of a hypothesis in science is ‘a tentative explanation for a scientific problem, based on currently accepted scientific understanding and creative thinking’. Hypotheses are supported by lines of evidence and are based on the prior experience, background knowledge and observations of the scientists.
Hypothesis, theory and law are three terms that are often confused. This myth says that facts and observations produce hypotheses, which give rise to theories, which, in turn, produce laws if sufficient evidence is amassed – so laws are theories that have been proved true.
Actually, hypotheses, theories and laws are as unalike as apples, oranges and bananas. They can’t grow into each other. Theories and laws are very different types of knowledge. Laws are generalisations, principles, relationships or patterns in nature that have been established by empirical data. Theories are explanations of those generalisations (also corroborated by empirical data).