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Tenets of the nature of science

Sometimes we assume that students will learn about the nature of science just by doing scientific investigations. This is no more valid than assuming a student will learn about photosynthesis by watching a leaf in the sun. We need to explicitly teach about science (the nature of science) as well as teach science content and do science.

To teach about science, it is useful to constantly highlight tenets of the nature of science. The following five tenets are considered appropriate for primary to secondary school learning because they provide students with a more accurate understanding of scientific enterprise and do not require expertise in science to be understood. They help particularly in making the ‘Understanding about science’ substrand clearer.

The tentative nature of scientific knowledge

Although it is reliable and durable, scientific knowledge is neither set in concrete nor perfect. Rather, it is subject to change in the light of new evidence or new interpretation of existing evidence. Because of its tentative nature, we cannot claim ‘absolute truth’ in science. The tentative nature of scientific knowledge also means that laws and theories may change.

See examples on the Hub

Why we cannot claim ‘absolute truth’ in science:
Science as a social endeavour

How laws and theories can change:
Plate tectonics, volcanoes and earthquakes
The structure of the nucleus
Understanding food webs in Fiordland

The empirical nature of science

This means that science is based on and derived from observations of the world around us from which interpretations are made. Scientists depend on empirical evidence to produce scientific knowledge. Any scientific explanation must be consistent with empirical evidence, and new evidence brings the revision of scientific knowledge. Every New Zealand Research story on this site will show scientists making observations of some sort, ranging from observations with the naked eye to the use of instruments to make observations.

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The importance of observation in science using examples from research into reptiles and amphibians:
Observation in science

New Zealand Research articles showing scientists making observations of some sort:
How to name organisms
Explaining a rock core
Measuring salinity
Detecting light in space

The inferential, imaginative and creative nature of science

However, science isn’t simply the accumulation of observable evidence and the orderly gathering of knowledge. All observations require interpretation and inference by scientists. To do this, scientists require imagination and creativity to make inferential statements about what they see. In fact, imagination and creativity are needed in every aspect of a scientist’s work – making sense of observations, making the creative leap from data to possible explanation, coming up with new ideas, designing investigations and looking at old data in a new light.

Creativity in research design can be seen in all of the New Zealand Research stories. These stories challenge the myth that there is one universal way to do science, commonly referred to as ‘the scientific method’. The history of science shows that no single method can be used. Rather, there are many ways to investigate problems in science.

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Creativity in research design:
Creativity and imagination in science
Research design 

The subjective and theory-laden nature of science

Different scientists can interpret the same datasets differently. How can this be so? Scientists do strive to be objective, but it is just not possible to make truly objective observations and interpretations without any bias. A scientist’s mind is not a blank slate. Individual scientists have their prior knowledge, theoretical beliefs, experiences, cultural background, training, expectations and biases, each of which will affect their observations and conclusions. All observation is preceded by theory and conceptual knowledge. Science tries to overcome this lack of pure objectivity through the scientific community, which scrutinises scientific work and helps balance individual scientists’ leanings.

Many of the teaching and learning activities could be used to demonstrate to students how much prior knowledge they bring to any science investigation.

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How students bring prior knowledge to any science investigation:
Conservation ranking in action
The great candle experiment

The socially and culturally embedded nature of science

All scientific knowledge is produced within a larger society and culture. This means that the social and cultural elements such as politics, economics, power structures, religion and philosophy will affect the science knowledge produced and how it is accepted. This also means that the direction and the products of science will be greatly influenced by the society and the culture in which the science is conducted.

As societies change, so do scientific priorities. For example, during the first half of the 20th century, two World Wars dominated society and so governments made funding available for research with wartime applications. Science moved in that direction and nuclear energy was unlocked. Science changes to reflect shifts in society and its priorities.

All scientific knowledge can also be seen to be embedded in a global scientific community. This community has a particular culture, expectations and accumulated knowledge – all of which are essential to increasing scientific knowledge.

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The collaborative nature of the scientific community:
Specialists working together

A cautionary note


Students should understand that these tenets are just some of the characteristics of science. They should also see that they are not separate from each other – each is related and interconnected. They are presented in a discrete way here simply as a helpful tool for understanding.

These tenets can’t just be taught as a list to be transmitted by teachers and rote learned by students. They need to be understood within the context of any science topic or investigation and incorporated into all our science teaching. Reframing them as questions (“In what sense is this scientific knowledge tentative and in what sense is it durable?”) will promote more effective teaching of the nature of science and a deeper understanding of nature of science ideas. 

Useful links

This fascinating interactive – NASA @ Home and City – shows how the scientific research for space exploration has impacted so much of our daily lives both in our homes and in our communities.
www.nasa.gov/externalflash/nasacity/index2.htm external link

Activity idea

You might like to use these activities to help your students develop their understanding the nature of science. They are engaging activities, without any science knowledge content, to do any time during the school day:
The extra piece 
Mystery boxes
Scrambled Sentence