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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
What is Science?
Catherine Milne, New York University
The goals for this chapter are to support you to:
Develop a nuanced and rich understanding of the nature of science as a construct of human action
Evaluate arguments about the structure of science as a discipline in education
Start to develop your personal philosophy about the nature of science that will inform your practice as a teacher of science
Australian Professional Standards for Teachers — Graduate Level:
Standard 2: Know the content and how to teach it (Focus areas 2.1, 2.2)
WHAT CONSTITUTES SCIENCE?
I have always been concerned by the lack of conversation in science education about the nature of science and how teachers make decisions about what counts as science. Combined with this is my concern about how teachers interpret the claims of textbook authors or education-standards developers about what constitutes science. So, here is a little test. Read the following snapshots and decide whether or not they are examples of science. How did you make that decision? Also, note down any questions that come to mind as you read each snapshot.
Which of these snapshots did you locate within science? In making that decision, did you focus on: whether the case described was a study of nature? Where the study was published? The procedures the researchers used to produce the knowledge? And whether the data produced had been confirmed by others? Did you focus on whether a scientific theory was central to each case? Or was there some other aspect of each case influencing your decision about whether or not it belonged to science?
Think about how your response to each snapshot is indicative of your understanding of what science is and what lies outside the boundaries of science, which might be called pseudoscience. You might also be asking: well, what is the right answer? Which of these snapshots are really science? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not a simple one. Equally unfortunately, science textbooks often try to maintain the myth that there is a simplistic scientific method that, if followed, will allow you to say you are doing science. As these snapshots suggest, it is not that simple, because there are cultural and historical structures that support the discipline of science to decide what counts as science.
Complexity aside, I hope you will agree that each of these examples has some features that are important for identifying an endeavour as scientific. Each of the snapshots has something to say to us about the following statement: the practice of science involves working in a field of study with structures, values, and ways of doing things that are used by members of the field of science to decide what should count as science. These structures, values, and ways of doing things are referred to in this chapter as norms. Norms are human constructions, developed or constructed by people within the field, and are used to test knowledge claims. This process of testing knowledge claims through the structures, values, and ways of doing things defines the field and boundaries of science.
An example of this testing process is evident in Snapshot 1.4: Antibodies and water memory. The demand by the editor of Nature that Benveniste and his colleagues replicate their experiments with witnesses and generate similar data to the study they submitted is an extreme example of some of the structures that the science community has in place to organise what counts as science. Other scientists were critical of the decision of the editor of Nature to publish this paper, suggesting that decisions about what counts as science is a communal process. Also, as Nature's editor acknowledged, the results were startling and seemed inconsistent with longstanding scientific laws, such as the Law of Mass Action (a mathematical model of the constant relationship between the concentration of products and reactants in chemical reactions that reach dynamic equilibrium), and therefore needed to be explored further rather than dismissed.
In Snapshot 1.1: MMR vaccine and autism, retraction by The Lancet of Wakefield's autism–vaccination paper was initially based on the inability of other researchers to replicate the original results claimed by Wakefield's research team. Snapshot 1.2: Schoolgirl discovers supernova challenges us to ask whether there are norms in place that try to control the members who are identified as scientists.
How did you respond to Snapshot 1.3: Yanyuwa and Garrwa people and cycads, concerning the Aboriginal groups from Groote Eylandt who extract flour from a toxic nut? This case raises the question of the role of Indigenous knowledge in the science that students learn at school. As a form of systematic knowledge, how is Indigenous knowledge similar to, and different from, the science that typically informs curricula? I think of the science typically taught in schools as a local knowledge that has gone global. Historically, the dispersion of the systematic knowledge we call science was helped by its association with languages, such as Greek, Latin and Arabic, which were the lingua franca of large swathes of Africa, Asia and Europe. What role does language play in Indigenous knowledge? Consider the role that English now plays in the communication of scientific knowledge. If all forms of systematic knowledge about the natural world are called science, then the science typically taught in schools might more accurately be called Eurocentric science, which communicates the place from which this form of science emerged over time.
WHAT DO NATIONAL DOCUMENTS SAY ABOUT SCIENCE?
Often, when science is offered as a subject at school, little thought is given to how we identify the borders of science that allow teachers and students to make the claim that they are teaching or learning science. Instead, students know they are doing science, or biology, or chemistry, or physics, or whatever, because of the context in which this activity takes place — a school classroom or laboratory — and/or the resources, such as textbooks and lab manuals, they use in this space.
If we look at national curriculum documents, we can get a sense of how specific groups of people frame their response to the question 'what is science?' For example, in the Australian Curriculum, science is presented in the following way:
Science provides an empirical way of answering interesting and important questions about the biological, physical and technological world. The knowledge it produces has proved to be a reliable basis for action in our personal, social and economic lives. Science is a dynamic, collaborative and creative human endeavour arising from our desire to make sense of our world through exploring the unknown, investigating universal mysteries, making predictions and solving problems. Science aims to understand a large number of observations in terms of a much smaller number of broad principles. Science knowledge is contestable and is revised, refined and extended as new evidence arises. (ACARA 2018 Rationale)
Thoughtful scholars developed this description using available resources and their experiences in the field. This definition communicates a description of science that the authors expect educators building a curriculum to use. However, how this definition is enacted and enforced involves political, social and cultural decisions. The social and cultural decisions that structure science focus on knowledge (epistemology), how we come to know about what is reality (ontology) and the values that are key to science (axiology). In the following sections, we will examine some of the epistemological elements, beginning with the term empirical, which seems to be key since science is described as providing an empirical way of answering questions.
In contemporary usage, the word empirical is typically associated with the practice of observing. This can be direct, through the use of senses such as sight, smell and hearing, or indirect, using instruments that detect objects and changes that are not available to our senses. Made famous by seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke, empiricism as a theory of knowledge associates true knowledge with sense experiences. According to empiricism, our observations provide us with knowledge about something. For example, you walk outside on a summer's day. Applying your sense of touch, you feel warmth. You can claim to know that it is hot. An empiricist would accept your observation as truthful.
So what do we know about the term empirical? As a word and associated meaning, empirical comes from the Latin empiricus and Greek empeirikos and means experienced or skilled in trial or experiment. Empiricism was associated with an ancient school of physicians in Greek medicine called the empiricists (Lindberg 2007). Greek medical empiricists argued that, if the causes of diseases were the same in all places, then the same remedies should be used in these places. This approach to medicine suggests that there has always been a universal element to empiricism from its origins to modern science. Greek empiricists argued that experience was the most productive way of understanding how it was possible to find relief from sickness, and that actions or practices, not opinions, were the most important for developing knowledge (Milne 2011). Valuing what we do above what we say can be understood as having some connection to how we comprehend empirical today, even if the connection of empirical to the senses was not as highly emphasised then as it is now.
ANSWERING INTERESTING AND IMPORTANT QUESTIONS
Think back over the snapshots you read that introduced this chapter. Did any questions come to you as you read each one? Did you ask any questions that required exploring the science context further? For example, one of the questions that came to me as I read about Wakefield in Snapshot 1.1 was: what do data from other studies have to say about the connection between immunisation and autism? After hearing about Kathryn Aurora Gray and her discovery of a supernova in Snapshot 1.2, I asked: are supernovas more likely to be observed in specific locations in the universe, or are they spread out equally all over the universe? How do people go about finding a supernova? Do some people have an issue with ten-yearolds making discoveries in science?
Note that the questions I asked, and perhaps the ones you asked, make some assumptions about the world. For example, the way I asked my questions assumes that I can investigate them using logical means and that the phenomenon being explained will respond to inquiry in ways that are predictable. The belief that nature behaves in predictable ways is a cornerstone of science. To answer these questions, I do not expect to have to invoke anything else, including supernatural beings or magic, for answers. Where in the definition for science from the Australian Curriculum is this notion of predictability captured?
The questions we both asked as we read Snapshots 1.1 to 1.4 raise the bigger question of how science decides if a question is important or interesting. In the case of Snapshots 1.1 and 1.4, publication in a significant journal such as The Lancet or Nature provided a discipline-based endorsement of the importance and interest of the questions being asked by the researcher. As you have probably experienced in your own education, questions are important to science. A justification for the existence of science as a discipline is that its basis is a series of questions put to nature as science seeks to understand and explain the world we experience. But if we think of science as questioning, then we also need to acknowledge that what we accept as the answer is partly determined by the question we ask. In other words, we ask questions to fill in the gaps that we know about.
Note that, in science, to ask questions that will support further construction of science knowledge, you first need to know something about that field; you need to have some understanding of what the gaps are. For me, this is a key element for understanding how to support science inquiry in schools. Questions that can be explored do not come from nothing, so students need some background to ask questions that they can explore through the processes associated with science. This background can come from their everyday experiences. For example, abrupt changes in weather might lead a student to ask whether such changes are due to global warming or just a cyclical process. Observing the amount of car traffic in Sydney, students might ask if the ozone level is worse there than at the site of a factory near their home. Of course, to ask about ozone, they would need to have some experience of ozone.
Within the cultural discipline of science, the types of questions that tend to be asked are what, how and why (Milne 2008). Think about the questions you asked as you read the snapshots. Do they fit into those categories of questions? For science, what questions — such as 'what is a supernova?', 'what type of reaction is that? or 'what gas is given off?' — can be thought of as definition questions. How questions — such as 'how is the reaction similar to the reaction in an instantaneous ice pack?' or 'if we add less or more water will the reaction still take place?' — can be thought of as pattern questions. Finally, why questions tend to be what we might call theory questions. These are the questions that require the use of ideas, such as atoms, molecules, energy and cells, which are not directly observable but can be used to explain observations. Each of these different types of questions initiates different research methods.
For scientists, and perhaps also for students working in science, questions often come from the unexpected results of experiments, results that do not conform to their expectations. There are lots of examples of this from the history of science, such as that presented in Snapshot 1.5, which describes how Marie and Pierre Curie discovered two new elements, polonium and radium. As you read through this example, think of what was known about this field before Marie Curie decided to become involved. What question did she decide to explore, and how did she make sense of the answer?
Note that Curie's finding of higher radioactivity, a term she proposed, from pitchblende than from uranium metal was unexpected. She asked a how question, 'how can that be?' Her first move was to check the instrument she used to detect the rays, to make sure that what she observed was not an artefact of instrument calibration but could be attributed to the material she was observing. Once she had established that the instrumentation was reliable and accurate, she had to find another possible answer to the question about the cause of the ray activity. She addressed this question by exploring patterns, looking for a new element using spectra. Using spectra in this way was innovative. This process was initially developed by Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchhoff; they identified that each element has a unique spectrum, which allowed them to discover caesium and rubidium in 1860 and 1861, respectively. Curie understood that a sample of a new element would be expected to emit a unique spectrum. Her explanation/hypothesis was that extra ray activity was due to a previously unidentified element or elements present in pitchblende, and once she had reached a certain level of purity, she used spectra to look for these new elements.
Let us compare Marie Curie's approach to addressing a question of interest with the activities of a group of students in Snapshot 1.6.
SUMMARY OF KEY POINTS
Science is a global form of systematic knowledge. Central to science is a specific way of asking questions that assumes we can attain answers to those questions through specific practices. To answer the questions, we use our senses to observe the world naturally or through experiments in which we change the world in some way. We do this because we believe nature behaves in ways that are predictable and can be observed and measured. I always think of science as valuing purposeful observing, but observing can only be purposeful if we have some sense of what we need to observe. As a science educator, you have a responsibility to construct learning experiences in which the students in your care have opportunities to engage in purposeful observing and other practices that we have touched on in this chapter, including asking questions that science can seek to answer, using instruments, and reasoning from evidence. But it could be argued that these are also the practices valued in Indigenous knowledge. If that is the case, then what makes science different, or is it the same?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Art of Teaching Science"
Copyright © 2019 in the collection of Vaille Dawson, Grady Venville, and Jennifer Donovan.
Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Table of Contents
Figures, tables and snapshots,
About the editors,
Part 1 Understanding the Art of Teaching Science,
Chapter 1 What is science? Catherine Milne,
Chapter 2 Facts, laws and theories: The three dimensions of science? Catherine Milne,
Chapter 3 Constructivist and sociocultural theories of learning Russell Tytler, Joseph Ferguson and Peta White,
Chapter 4 Conceptual change teaching and learning David Treagust, Reinders Duit and Hye-Eun Chu,
Part 2 Implementing the Art of Teaching Science,
Chapter 5 Contemporary science curricula in Australian schools Vaille Dawson and Angela Fitzgerald,
Chapter 6 Planning in secondary-school science Donna King and Reece Mills,
Chapter 7 Principles of effective science teaching and learning Denis Goodrum,
Chapter 8 Science inquiry: Thinking and working like a scientist Grady Venville,
Chapter 9 Assessment, learning and teaching: A symbiotic relationship Debra Panizzon,
Chapter 10 Diversity and differentiation in science Gemma Scarparolo,
Part 3 Extending the Art of Teaching Science,
Chapter 11 A toolkit of additional teaching strategies and procedures Jennifer Donovan,
Chapter 12 Science and safety inside and outside school laboratories Siew Fong Yap,
Chapter 13 Teaching and learning science with digital technologies Matthew Kearney and Wendy Nielsen,
Chapter 14 Integrating STEM Linda Hobbs and John Cripps Clark,