Effect Measure

A rant about science educators

A piece online in The Scientist is an example of silly handwringing by science educators. James Williams, who describes himself as a science educator who trains science graduates to become science teachers, despairs because most trainee teachers he teaches don’t have a clue about what makes science “science.” He has been surveying them and reports:

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? (The Scientist)

Mr. Willliams thinks this is bad news. He correctly surmises the problem isn’t confined to trainees. Most scientists also can’t properly say what distinguishes science from pseudoscience, say what a fact is, give a satisfying rendition of what a theory is, etc. The problem is that Mr. Williams can’t do it either, because there is no agreement on these knotty matters. He seems to think these are simple and settled questions. But finding adequate criteria that separate science from pseudoscience, the so-called Demarcation Problem, remains an unsettled question in the philosophy of science. It is so difficult, and possibly so fruitless, that many philosophers have ceased to be concerned with it. Similarly, what is a “fact”?

  • 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.

Mr. Williams’s lack of sophistication here is breathtaking although hardly surprising. A wag once commented (and I have quoted here often) that to expect a scientist to understand the philosophy of science is like expecting a fish to understand hydrodynamics. I guess the same thing goes for science educators, although it is less excusable. Mr. Williams seems to be under the impression that these extremely difficult foundational issues are settled and should be common knowledge for all scientists.

This is not to say that there aren’t obvious misunderstandings, things that are clearly wrong. A scientific theory is not just a collection of yet unproven ideas (whatever it means to “prove” things in any area outside of logic). But alas it is much easier to say what is the wrong thing than to safely assert what is the right thing. Here’s the difference:

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.

I can agree with the first sentence and not the second. There is certainly a difference between “a fully fledged scientific theory that is backed by evidence and accepted by the scientific community and a speculative guess” but it isn’t demonstrated by teaching children the philosophy of science. Most scientists are quite competent in doing science even though they aren’t versed in the philosophical arguments about what it is they are doing. If they bothered with those questions most would likely become paralyzed.

Scientific literacy is about teaching the content of modern science. That naturally entails the rudiments of experimental method, logic, the uses of observation and sources of random and systematic error. It does not mean you have to have a good definition of what a “fact” is or the status of theories versus models or what makes something “scientific.” The only people who think it is possible to teach those things to scientists and science students are people who themselves have a poor grasp of what is involved.

Unfortunately, as science educators go, I don’t think Mr. Williams is unusual.


  1. #1 Andy Canfield
    October 16, 2008

    Irrelevant comment: When I was younger I concerned myself with “factoids” (things which can be true or false). Now I deal in perspectives, which are neither true nor false but which can be useful or un-useful. Seems to me that “A rant about science educators” is an interesting perspective.

  2. #2 phytosleuth
    October 16, 2008

    I make it a point to bring up What is Science to my herb students ever since I took a class on Risk Management. We discuss all those words like truth, fact, belief, hypotheses, and weight of evidence. It’s really useful.

    I’d like to hear what you think, Revere, of conventional medicine calling itself “evidence-based.” Thanks.

  3. #3 revere
    October 16, 2008

    phyto: I have no quarrel with the name, EBM, \although most of conventional medicine doesn’t qualify for that name as it is viewed by its most zealous adherents. I do have a quarrel sometimes with what I see as EBM’s “methodolatry,” the unwise and unsophisticated worship of certain kinds of evidence (like RCTs) over all other kinds of evidence. In general I think evidence is a good thing to base judgments on when you can. When you can’t, the use of logic, inference and intuition is needed. In fact, they are needed even when you have evidence. Unfortunately the use of the word “evidence” doesn’t solve a lot, since what counts as evidence is often controversial. Big subject.

  4. #4 Nate McVaugh
    October 16, 2008

    While I appreciate the subtle and valid distinctions you’re trying to make here, I think you go too far in moving from the postmodernist ‘there are not absolute facts’ observation to the ‘therefore all ideas are equally valid’ conclusion. This is a bit simplistic, and ignores the issue at hand – poor scientific literacy.

    Practicing scientists need not be experts in the philosophy of science. However this does not address the issue that Williams appears to be concerned with – teaching scientific literacy to children. Simply having students memorize definitions does not make them scientifically literate, but concluding that students should avoid any exposure to the philosophy of science is counterproductive. For example, consider a recent editorial by the Chairman of the State Board of Education for Texas:

    If science is limited to only natural explanations but some natural phenomena are actually the result of supernatural causes then science would never be able to discover that truth � not a very good position for science. Defining science to allow for this possibility is just common sense. Science must limit itself to testable explanations not natural explanations. Then the supernaturalist will be just as free as the naturalist to make testable explanations of natural phenomena. The view with the best explanation of the empirical evidence should prevail.

    You may read more if you’re interested:


    Avoiding any consideration of the philosophy of science guarantees that students will have no basis to consider larger issues such as “global warming, cloning, the possible dangers posed by cell phones or the pros and cons of genetically modified crops”.

    Critiquing ideas that fail to address the problem is perfectly fine. Failing to provide an alternative results in politicized science. I’d rather try to address the issue than throw up my hands and ignore it.

  5. #5 corvi42
    October 16, 2008

    […] to expect a scientist to understand the philosophy of science is like expecting a fish to understand hydrodynamics.

    This comparison is completely wrong. A fish is engaged in a physical activity, which requires no knowledge about the activity in order to perform it. A scientist is engaged primarily in an intellectual pursuit. The physical and mechanical activities of science are secondary to the intellectual ones. In fact, it is critical to the design and execution of a good experiment that a scientist understand the intellectual issues at play in what they are doing. A lab technician doesn’t need to know much about the intellectual issues involved – they become experts at using apparatus and executing recipe-like instructions. A scientist, by contrast, needs to understand issues in order to define the experiments which will yield the most relevant information for resolving the issues in question. If you were to compare a fish and an athlete – highlighting that the athlete doesn’t need to understand the physics at play in their sport, you’d be right.

    I had a college professor who was fond of saying: “anyone who teaches a science, and doesn’t also teach the philosophy underpinning that science is being (intellectually) dishonest” And I completely agree: to teach a science is to teach “truth” – for some definition of truth. To ignore the philosophical issues supporting that “truth” is to pretend they don’t exist. It is, in essence, to pretend these issues are resolved and not worthy of discussion. You have pointed out very well that they are far from resolved – so I find it hard to believe you’d consider them unworthy of discussion. The very fact that they are ambiguous and not well established is the exact reason that they need to be taught and brought up in a science education.

  6. #6 Janus
    October 16, 2008

    Woah, revere, you need to cool down.

    We agree that facts are important, but education is worthless when one knows little more. And we agree that students ought to be exposed to critical reasoning and learn to follow a debate within the scientific community. Yet, what happens when the questions: Why engage in criticism? Why be rational? is introduced?

    Students don�t just need to know that falsification occurs, but why a critical discussion is better than dogmatism; that uncertainty isn�t a bad thing within science; that �proof� is unattainable.

  7. #7 revere
    October 16, 2008

    Nate: I am not of the mind that “anything goes.” But I am of the mind that it is difficult to teach concepts you don’t understand yourself. What is a “fact” is one of those things. Much better to finesse it and talk about observations and to teach science by showing how science is done by practicing scientists (e.g., use of a control group and why we use one — when we do, anyway). I have a visceral reaction to the comic book renditions of scientific method I see in textbooks (make a hypothesis, set up an experiment to test it, compare the outcome to the hypothesis, if it doesn’t match, repeat, etc.), which is a caricature of the real world of science. (You said all swans are black? Here’s a white swan! Response: Swan? You call that a swan?). We aren’t helped by erecting a picture of the philosophy of science that is known to have defects (e.g., verificationism or its opposite, falsificationism; logical positivism, etc.). On the other hand, as a practicing scientist, any philosophy that says that science is entirely socially constructed is a non-starter. We scientists are almost all naive philosophical realists. We believe there is a real world out there, we can know it, and science is the most reliable way to get that knowledge. There have been various attempts to square the circle in recent years, e.g., Ian Hacking or Susan Haack’s work, which I recommend, but they are quite beyond the kind of stuff we are talking about in the science literacy world. The question I am raising is how much we should get into foundational issues in elementary science literacy and how much we should just be talking about science content, which is the extent to which most real scientists know it (although they have lots of false illusions about the rest of it).

  8. #8 Random Royalty
    October 16, 2008

    I think it is important to demarcate what are ethical issues (e.g. consequences of applied science) vs. epistemic concerns, such as truth in knowledge, facts.

    In both cases the criteria for what makes a good scientific theory works for empirical science but is very shaky when it comes to more metaphysical domains such as those found in the human sciences (e.g. psychology and sociology).

    Generally the debates in philosophy of science have to do with the demarcation of how facts are justified. This results in abusing the more dogmatic applications of process models, or what is a more procedural approach to doing science.

    What procedures do is not a substitute for criteria, which is to say that you need to be pretty damn sure that what you are studying is real. Unfortunately most scientists depend on their procedures and mistakenly take them as the criteria for good science.

    For the most part Popper`s more advanced falsification theory(good scientific theories must be falsifiable) has withstood the test of time, and is perhaps the most important criteria that can be used to demarcate science from pseudo-science. The other is understanding fully the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic properties, and whether or not those properties can be given ontological status.

    Fortunately these criteria are built in to most science education but unfortunately are not explicit.

  9. #9 revere
    October 16, 2008

    Random: whether Popperism has withstood the test of time is debatable. I am of the view that it crumbled in the face of the Quine-Duhem Thesis and similar problems, but this will probably raise more than a few hackles. There are a lot of scientists who think that most philosophers of science accept Popper which is not the case. Most do not. A few would still consider themselves Popperians but very few.

  10. #10 Philip H.
    October 16, 2008

    “Scientific literacy is about teaching the content of modern science. That naturally entails the rudiments of experimental method, logic, the uses of observation and sources of random and systematic error. It does not mean you have to have a good definition of what a “fact” is or the status of theories versus models or what makes something “scientific.” The only people who think it is possible to teach those things to scientists and science students are people who themselves have a poor grasp of what is involved.”

    UM . . . . no, not quite. Scientific literacy has to include some attempt at definition of those terms. The continuing assaults on the “Theory of Evolution” are based in a common level understanding of the word “Theory” that is – like it or not – different then how we scientists use theory. to lay people (many of whom are well educated, and well intentioned) what you and I call theory, they call fact. What you and I call hypothesis, they call theory. SO it does matter what the word is defined as, and it does matter whether you spend time teaching those definitions as part of a science literacy effort.

  11. #11 revere
    October 16, 2008

    Philip: If it were easy to make these definitions I’d say teach them, by all mans. Certainly it is a “fact” that Bush won the last Presidential election. Is this the same usage as, Evolution is a fact? Or Newtonian physics is a fact? (Is it?). I agree that lay people often use terms differently than scientists but the problem isn’t solved by defining “theory” but in showing people how it is used by scientists (I mean this for the purpose of teaching scientific literacy, not as a philosophical principle).

  12. #12 Nate McVaugh
    October 16, 2008


    I am not of the mind that “anything goes.”

    Thanks for the response. I wasn’t sure if you were angling for an extreme postmodernist rejection of knowledge, so I’m glad you clarified your position that it’s useless in the real world.

    But I am of the mind that it is difficult to teach concepts you don’t understand yourself. What is a “fact” is one of those things.

    Agreed. And I need to read Williams’ article before I can tell if he’s really advocating such a black and white approach to a complex issue.

    I have a visceral reaction to the comic book renditions of scientific method I see in textbooks (make a hypothesis, set up an experiment to test it, compare the outcome to the hypothesis, if it doesn’t match, repeat, etc.), which is a caricature of the real world of science.

    Very true, and a the comic book approach is bad, but better than nothing. Much better are projects where students do their own research and are forced to adjust their concepts to real world issues. If Williams is advocating the old ‘drill and kill’ approach, you’ll be reassured to know that that approach was on the way out. At least until No Child Left Behind pretty much mandated that all education become ‘drill and kill’. If the US educational system ever gets out from under NCLB and allows teachers to actually teach, there are much better approaches that can be used. For example:


    Shows how young students can develop their own understanding of statistics and experimental error.

    Ian Hacking or Susan Haack’s work, which I recommend, but they are quite beyond the kind of stuff we are talking about in the science literacy world.

    I’d be interested in looking into those, since I haven’t read much since Popper. Could you suggest some articles or books?

    The question I am raising is how much we should get into foundational issues in elementary science literacy and how much we should just be talking about science content, which is the extent to which most real scientists know it

    Good question. And I’d suggest that there are various approaches to science literacy, some of which involve content, some of which involve experimentation, and some of which involve rote memorization. But I’d also suggest that simply focusing on content without providing students with any sort of organizational framework to help them understand and integrate the content won’t work well. I don’t think that this is what you’re advocating, but I’m not certain.

    Elementary students wouldn’t benefit from a deep introduction to philosophy of science in early grades, but they shouldn’t be hobbled by hiding these issues from them. The key (it seems to me) is designing a curriculum that moves them towards an understanding of science that addresses the philosophical issues. I’m not sure how you do that by teaching ‘content’ alone. Again, I’m not sure that this is what you’re advocating, so please correct me if I’m mistaken.

    Of course, this is all academic as long as NCLB continues to dictate curriculum and topics. I guarantee that there’s no room for understanding the philosophy of science there. Memorizing ‘facts’ yes, but not understanding. Until NCLB is gone, science education (and education in general) aren’t going to move beyond memorization.

    And thanks for the post that started this – nice to get a conversation going about science education.

  13. #13 Janus
    October 16, 2008


    I’m surprised that you believe that you discount Critical Rationalism due to the Quine-Duhem Thesis. Popper addressed the issue of background knowledge in his first book “The Logic of Scientific Discovery”.

    And it doesn’t matter if a majority of philosophers of science accept Popper. To this day, most philosophers of science don’t take the problem of induction seriously.

  14. #14 revere
    October 16, 2008

    Nate: Book recommendations:

    Hacking, The Social Construction of What?>/em>
    Haack, Defending Science

    Regarding what I was advising: I wasn’t advising anything, I guess. I was ranting, which I concede is not the most constructive thing but at least it was an honest title.

  15. #15 Steven BREWER
    October 16, 2008

    It’s not clear at all what “science literacy” means — or ought to mean — but to equate it with “content of modern science” is a particularly depauperate view. Those who advocate for scientific literacy principally want to prepare non-scientists to understand (1) enough about science to know the kinds of questions science can answer and (2) something about the nature of the answers that science can provide. These concepts are not part of science themselves, but are important to understand how scientific knowledge and practice should intersect with other spheres of human endeavor, such as politics, energy policy, and education.

  16. #16 Nate McVaugh
    October 16, 2008

    I wasn’t advising anything, I guess. I was ranting, which I concede is not the most constructive thing but at least it was an honest title.

    Bringing up the validity of science education is worthy of both a rant and serious consideration. Sometimes it takes a rant to get things going. I guess the upshot from my perspective in science education is that there are lots of bad examples out there. And they deserve to be criticized. But the topic is also important, and it’s good to see some of the approaches which have been tried. Thanks for the references (guess I have my semester break reading lined up :-), and do take a look at the Petrosino article if you’re interested. I was amazed by what he was able to accomplish with his approach.

  17. #17 revere
    October 16, 2008

    Janus: It’s not just background knowledge. It’s both underdetermination and the logical failure of modus tollens in the face of complex conditionals. This is, I believe, something Klee has emphasized as well.

    Stephen: I think I agree with you but I’m not sure I know what it implies in this case.

  18. #18 Jasper Palfree
    October 16, 2008

    Science is not just a collection of results and definitions. Philosophy is not just a collection of results and definitions.
    Science is a process by which we study the the world. Philosophy is a process by which we study ideas such as “knowledge”, “facts”, etc.

    You seem to assert that the words scientists commonly use (such as: truth, fact, belief, hypotheses) are very vaguely understood. I agree with you completely.

    But to then argue that this means philosophy of science should not be taught to scientists seems to me to suppose that philosophy of science defines such concepts. I agree with the following reader’s comment:

    corvi42: …The very fact that they are ambiguous and not well established is the exact reason that they need to be taught and brought up in a science education.

    I think the reason most scientists don’t understand the obscurity of these words is exactly because they aren’t taught the philosophy of science; the ways to think about such words and deal with questions such as: can we can create reasonable definitions of these words or not?

    Some people don’t seem to like your fish analogy. Let me offer my own analogy: To expect a scientist to understand the philosophy of science is like expecting a diplomat to understand philosophy of morality.

    Concepts of “right” and “wrong” are not rock solid, just as “fact”, “theory”, and “hypothesis” are not rock solid. If scientists are expecting to communicate their explanations and prediction about aspects of the universe to other people, I would think they should be aware that words scientists commonly use carry different meaning to a non-scientist.

    If we don’t teach ways of questioning these definitions (or even the fact that they are questionable) to the very people with whom these questions involve, then we won’t make any progress in answering these questions regardless of whether they can be answered or not.

  19. #19 revere
    October 16, 2008

    Jasper: I don’t disagree with your new analogy although I don’t exactly know what its implications are. But how do you teach and define things to others you don’t understand yourself? What this rant was about (and it was, admittedly a rant, not an argument) was the supposed transparency to scientists and science of terms like “fact”, “theory”, etc. They are anything but transparent to anyone who has thought about them for more than a millisecond, and to imply otherwise is what I was ranting about.

    This is a big subject about what science literacy is. I am arguing against making distinctions of science and pseudoscience or fact and hypothesis the centerpiece because I worry it will result in either facile nonsense or logical muddle. I’d rather citizens knew the content of Evolution rather than why it is or isn’t a “theory”. While it isn’t an either-or, when it comes to actually stipulating what a “fact” is, we start to get into some deep water. Since we aren’t going to teach them to swim in that water, why throw them there in the first place?

  20. #20 Jasper Palfree
    October 16, 2008

    I see your point. But I think anyone who learns evolution (for example) is bound to communicate with other people about it. When that happens, they will inevitably end up in the water anyways. So I’m arguing that we should teach them to swim… at least a little.

  21. #21 Random Royalty
    October 16, 2008

    revere says “whether Popperism has withstood the test of time is debatable. I am of the view that it crumbled in the face of the Quine-Duhem Thesis and similar problems”

    Popper went considerably beyond naive falsificationism in addressing Quine and Carnap. See:

    Popper (1957). ‘Philosophy of Science: a Personal Report’. In Mac (ed.). British Philosophy in the Mid-Century. London: Allen and Unwin, 1957.

    Unfortunately most people confuse falsifiability with falsification, which was precisely what Popper was trying to correct in this article.

    At any rate the point I was trying to make was that there is a tendency to confuse procedures (e.g. scientific method) for criteria, which was precisely the projects of Quine, Davidson, Feyerabend, Putnam and Popper.

  22. #22 Jonathan Vos Post
    October 16, 2008

    Second the motion about Ian Hacking.

    No time to chat now. Just finished 9th grade Biology, and there are folks here from Sacramento to evluate the teaching in the other classes…

    Yes, most science teachers do not know science.

    Yes, most scientists cannot articulate their metaphysical foundations nor explicate their paradigm.

    My students were so unconnected with the material that, twice this semester, I had to back up and review what we mean by Scientific Method.

    What triggered this the second time was that I asked one student what “Science” meant, and she said, “I don’t know. Doing projects and stuff?”

  23. #23 Coriolis
    October 16, 2008

    If I understand what you’re advocating here, you seem to be saying that we should teach science to people, without getting into the principles of how we arrive at scientific conclusions. I.e. we should explain what the theory of evolution is, or write down F=ma, but never explain the “scientific method” as it’s commonly called? Because it’s too complicated?

    If that’s really what you’re claiming, I couldn’t disagree more. While it’s probably hard to define terms like “fact” or “theory” to the satisfaction of some people, explaining the basic scientific process is not quite so complicated. And considering that one barely learns any actually useful science until graduate school, it’s probably the most important thing that can be thought in a lower level science class.

    Although than again, I also don’t understand what the ambiguity in these terms is. In physics, there are measurable (observable) variables in a system, and when they are measured, that’s a “fact” or “evidence”. When you try to explain why you measured what you measured, that’s a “theory”. Usually, at this point this theory also leads to predictions that can also be tested (if it doesn’t, it’s not necessarily wrong, just boring). When a theory’s been around for a while, it’s considered a “law”. However, at no point in this process is a claim made that the theory or law is “true” in some deeper sense than that of being the best model to explain a certain set of observations, at this time. Is there another definition of these things I’m not aware of?

  24. #24 Greg Laden
    October 16, 2008

    The actual meaning of all these terms does in fact vary across the disciplines and across individuals and contexts, with ‘hypothesis’ being the lest variable, I think. Or at least, that’s my hypothesis. So, given this ‘fact’ I would theorize that these results are expected. Though I wouldn’t base a rule on it. Jut a rule of thumb, maybe.

  25. #25 Bastiaan Zapf
    October 16, 2008

    As the other commenters expanded, i’m a bit confused about the point that is being made. I’m certain “post-modernism” or even “solipsism” wasnt intended, but i dearly missed things like “falsification” or “occams razor”. Somehow i missed Karl Popper being mentioned. I also think some people here overstate the worth of debate. Debate is important when ideas are developed, but the “Litmus-Tests” (the confrontation with reality – which, i’d say, is one of the few defining elements of science) ideally are debate-free and in reality approach this ideal closely.

    I’m also very certain that a significant but important fraction of people is aware about the theory behind science, and that science would work even with a majority not knowing. This is not to say that it wouldn’t work even better with everybody educated as far as possible.

    Journalism is not Reality. Do not confuse talk with action. I’ve seen many people instinctively working scientifically, without being aware of doing so. Very small children show signs of doubt and surprise even before they can talk. This is science: noticing where things work differently than expected. Science is not a philosopher talking a lot. Science is to know where to look for new things.

  26. #26 DVR
    October 16, 2008

    But you have to be careful here, revere. The meanings of the term in question are not contentious. That does not belong to debated topics in the philosophy of science. Here’s a couple of possible explanations:

    A sentence is true if and only if the world is the way the sentence says it is.

    A hypothesis is a conjecture.

    Point is: this is not what philosophers disagree about. This is what philosophers have to agree upon for any other debate even to get started. No non-postmodernist theory of truth, for instance, will disagree with the explanation of “truth” just given. Generally, if you want terminological definitions, look in the dictionary – no philosopher would, presumably, disagree with the definitions given in a good dictionary (else the philosopher would be utterly misguided).

    Distinguishing science from non-science, on the other hand, is presumably a substantial, philosophical issue. But the question of what it takes for something to count as science is different from the question of what the word “science” means. Saying what “electromagnetic field” means is a very different question from providing a complete theory of electromagnetic fields, and while a person with a complete understanding of the term “gold” does, perhaps, need to know the atomic number, he need to be able reliable to distinguish gold from non-gold in practice. And we understand “the universe” even if we don’t fully understand the universe.

  27. #27 g336
    October 16, 2008

    The reason it’s so dang hard to solve the “demarcation problem” between science and psuedoscience, is because that is NOT a scientific problem! It’s a TRIBAL issue, plain and simple. “Who is a member of my tribe, and who is not?” That’s monkey-level social dynamics: an attempt by those who hold high social status, to reduce the risk of their status becoming diminished by association with “others” who hold lower social status.

    Science is first and foremost a methodology for ascertaining the nature of physical reality. It can be applied well or poorly. It can be applied to domains that have high status such as the search for treatments for emerging illnesses, and to domains that have low status (pick your favorite example, such as astrology). But the methodology itself is agnostic, and so should its practitioners be as well.

    Now I’ll take the quiz and see if I put my foot in my mouth or not, before I read anyone else’s responses:

    Fact: a description of an object, relationship, or phenomenon, that is supported by empirical findings or by strict logical inference from empirical findings.

    Hypothesis: a prediction about an object, relationship, or phenomenon, that is stated in such a manner as to be accessible to empirical testing or logical inference. A hypothesis is not “proven” or “disproven,” but is “supported” or “not supported,” by facts that are found after the hypothesis has been stated.

    Theory: a body of knowledge that subsumes a number of supported hypotheses, and in turn provides a basis for further hypotheses that can be tested. Generally a theory is considered to be a reasonably complete description of its subject matter, and has a high level of explanatory power or ability to make successful testable predictions.

    Model: the equivalent of an analogy or metaphor, used in the attempt to understand objects, relationships, and phenomena, in the absence of a viable body of theory. A model is not a direct description, but conveys understanding by inference and example. Models may be highly useful as cognitive tools, in the process of developing theories.

    OK, now I’ll go back and see what others have posted.

    Oh and by the way, we’re not going to get anywhere with science education so long as we tolerate the propagation of utterly and demonstrably false garbage in public policy and education, such as “life begins at conception” and young-Earth creationism.

    Whether or not there is a deity is a valid subject for religion, and whether or not a deity somehow “inspired” or set in motion the natural processes we observe in the universe is also a valid subject for religion. Issues of these type are not accessible to empirical method and so are not part of the domain of science any more than the philosophy of artistic beauty is relevant to science. But when someone claims that a blob of cells lacking a brain has a mind, or that the Earth was created 6,000 years ago, they are propagating a frank delusion and should be committed to the nearest psychiatric hospital.

  28. #28 g336
    October 17, 2008


    If you want to use the term “psuedoscience” to describe the deliberate misuse of scientific method to promote a preordained conclusion, that’s fair & fine. That definition is irrespective of the social status issue and other cultural biases.

    For example when I was in highschool I read a study that purported to demonstrate that consumption of chocolate does not produce pimples in adolescents. The operationalization was: control group ate no chocolate, test group ate one chocolate bar per day, and pimples were counted. This was clearly flawed: the dosage level was held artificially low! Clearly the study could not have been expected to find a relationship, and in fact it did not. And oh yes, it was funded by the chocolate industry.

    IMHO, that’s psuedoscience in the worst way (and BTW I’m a chocolate fiend but that does not compromise my objectivity). The way to have done that study properly would have been to have four groups: control, low-dose, moderate-dose, and high-dose, where the dosages were calibrated with respect to body weight. And then look for a possible dose-response curve.

    In light of that and other examples notably pertaining to the climate crisis, and clinical trials of certain medications later found to be ineffetive and/or dangerous, I would have to say that the most important factor in psuedoscience is money. Money is a cause, probably the leading cause, of psuedoscience.

    The other major cause is ideology, for example when interest groups use known bad statistical methods to “prove” one thing or another. The “second-hand smoke” thing was an example of stacking statistics: compounding a bunch of barely significant studies to add up to something that appeared highly significant, to “prove” a point. (No doubt I’ll get slogged here for saying so, because that piece of psuedoscience conforms to the mainstream cultural bias!) Climate denialism is filled with examples, some motivated by money and others by ideology, to the point where that stuff is known as “Bush Lit” (say it three times fast:-). Creationism has plenty of its own, most of them well known in these quarters.

    As for tecahing: Rote memorization is exactly the worst thing for developing the kind of young minds that have a real grasp of science. Rote is the “Madrassas method,” preferred by fundamentalists the world over and despised by anyone with a taste for abstract thinking, metaphor, or serendipity. NCLB needs to be left behind, replaced by standards that emphasize ways of thinking and approaching subject matter.

    And I’ll tell you a dirty little secret.

    Fundamentalism is the expression of a cognitive trait that is hardwired in the brain, that favors concrete thinking over abstract thinking, is highly rigid, and has little or no tolerance for ambiguity and serendipity. People with that kind of brain wiring tend to become fundamentalists. The rote methods of NCLB, surprise surprise, favor that kind of cognitive style, and therefore give the fundamentalist mindset a competitive edge over the more freewheeling mindset that is at home with abstraction and ambiguity.

    If you want to send fundamentalist obscurantism back to the caves where it came from, the way to do that is to put in place the teaching methods and standards that favor the kind of mindset that is at home with abstraction and ambiguity. If this is done, the rigidly concrete thinkers who become the purveyors of obscurantism, will suffer a competitive disadvantage; and the free minds will gain a competitive advantage. Thus the free minds, abstract thinkers, and so on, will rise through the system to positions of influence. This will change the culture accordingly.

    It was telling that items on analogy and metaphor were recently removed from the Scholastic Aptitude Test. That was a direct result of the bad trend toward favoring concrete thinking over abstract thinking. And the cure for it is to move in the opposite direction: less standardized testing, but on that which remains, more emphasis on the kinds of tasks on which rigid minds perform poorly.

    Yes, such changes would be as much an expression of a cultural bias as the things they replace. But this is a cultural bias with its roots in reason and its future in the sustainability of our culture.

    Otherwise, China will be landing men and women on the Moon and preparing for Mars, while we are still fighting over creatioinism in highschool biology classes.

  29. #29 Zapf Brannigan
    October 17, 2008

    Random: The crucial distinction between truth and fact is fact is universally proven and accepted. Truth is a relative term. For example, the Bible is the standard of Christianity. Christianity accepts it as the truth, while others may believe it is full of lies. A fact is indisputable

  30. #30 Tom Horton
    October 17, 2008

    As a science educator, I acknowledge that many science students and professionals alike can’t adequately define concepts such as “fact,” “theory,” “hypothesis,” “law,” etc. That doesn’t mean, however, that correct concepts and definitions of these ideas don’t exist. It only means that in their everyday practice of science, these people don’t need to know these things so they don’t think about them.

    The rant is saying, in effect, that since 90% of people don’t know where Uzbekistan is, it could be anywhere and may not exist at all. I hope you can see the silliness of that logic.

    I also disagree with the statement that science education is about learning science content. Partially, yes, but not mostly. The main thing science education aims to teach is why and when and how to do controlled experiments. When a person finally learns that — and many never do — the boundaries between science and pseudoscience become clear.

  31. #31 abb3w
    October 17, 2008

    Science consists of:

    1) The process of gathering evidence
    2) The process (blackest art) of making conjectural models about how pieces of evidence relate;
    3) The process (black art) of forming all data into as hypothesis to convey the data via the conjecture; the trivial example is the null hypothesis
    4) The competitive proving (from Latin probare, to test) of all presented hypotheses for probability of predicting future results, done practically by experimental method or theoretically by measurement for MDLI (see “Minimum Description Length Induction, Bayesianism and Kolmogorov Complexity”, by Paul M. B. Vitanyi and Ming Li);
    5) The body of hypotheses presently proven best, known as “theory”. Note that which hypothesis is considered “theory” may potentially change, based on the arrival of additional evidence or a new hypothesis. (The sports-obsessed might consider it akin to a title belt, subject to new ownership based on another match or a new contender.)

    Using the theoretical form for #4, science thus reduces to a branch of philosophy which assumes the validity of formal logic for rules of inference, that the Zermelo-Fraenkel set axioms (absent choice) may be self-consistently asserted, and that Reality is related to Evidence via (arbitrary) finite set of finite rules. Since there is no non-circular means to “prove” these, they must essentially be asserted as valid via Faith; this, however, is where the requirements of Faith end for Science. All other “rules” of science (such as “cause and effect”) are not themselves propositions of Faith, but inferences based on present evidence via the primary tenets, and subject to change (as QM has for C&E) if the balance of evidence changes. Popperian Falsification may be refined (or reduced) to the requirement that a tentative hypothesis be other than the null hypothesis.

    (Of course, the math for the proofs of this is beyond the usual high-school level. Changing that might or might not be desirable.)

    Psuedoscience usually violates one of the requirements, or mandates the use of additional philosophical prior assumptions beyond those listed.

  32. #32 Broklynite
    October 17, 2008

    I’ve advocated for years that a good deal of the problem between scientists and the public perception of certain ideas is understanding exactly what a theory is. Intelligent Design likes to put itself up as an “alternative theory” to darwinian evolution. But it is, in fact, no such thing. There are certain requirements in terms of evidence, duplication of results, etc. in order to become a theory. ID is at best a hypothesis, but until it gets hard proof, it won’t get past that stage. As a quote allegedly attributed to Asimov goes, “Creationists make a theory sound like something someone came up with after being drunk all night.”

  33. #33 Winternight
    November 2, 2008

    I am currently in the process of writing an undergrad thesis on the necessity of explicitly teaching
    – the scope of ‘science’ and where its established truths apply
    – the methods of ‘fact’ creation, and why the process of fact creation in science is never fully elaborated
    – the embedded hierarchy of ‘truths’ as related to the great chain of being and the concept of ‘hardness’ in science
    – the origins and shortfalls of metaphors (models) in describing natural occurances

    One of the most obvious reasons for the confusion concerning what constitutes a ‘fact,’ ‘theory,’ or ‘hypothesis’ is that the explicit exploration of these concepts inevitably leads to a conversation that challenges an assumption at the very heart of science – that is – that there is such a thing as ‘objective truth’ and that we can know it by means of the scientific method.

    For example – let’s examine the difference between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction.’ It is easy to dichotomize these ideas – but in reality they are quite similar. Both are narratives actively contrived by humans to describe a certain world. Difference being, facts describe this world (the world of the person who devised and tested them), while fictions describe an invented world. Thus, scientists may declare that while writers “invent” fictions (a word framed in active form), scientists “discover” facts (a word that derives from its latin past-participle). This linguistic device implies that facts are facts everywhere and always have been, regardless of the perspective of the observer or any other variable. This is simply not true, and underlines that different observers experience different worlds – made most obvious across the lines of culture and gender. Now, these differences are more or less obvious in different fields, depending on the ‘hardness’ or degree of removal from the embodied human state. This does not change that facts are subject to the assumptions and cultural standards of the ‘fact-maker’ and that any hypothesis contrived to explain the fact is bound to be selected based on prior knowledge derived from previous research in the field or metaphors drawn from previous experience.

    In essence, the reason that these terms are so highly contested is that an honest definition would mean admitting that the process of science is heavily influenced by the social standards subscribed to by its actors (here, I speak specifically to biology, as it is my area of expertise, but know that it applies, in relative degrees, across disciplines). Incidentally, this may give people who are differently accultured (women, people of different ethnicities, people of alternative genders, etc.) a basis on which to critique the scientific establishment which routinely disenfranchises them. Currently, the unexplained and taken-for-granted content knowledge so readily espoused by willingly ignorant teachers, schools, and public media, drives these folks away from science in droves. Would you stick around to listen to some fool ramble on about ‘facts’ that you know don’t apply to you, and routinely miss important distinctions that are crucial to your very existence? I think not.

    Look at the science achievement gap. Look at the people who create and present scientific content knowledge. Without contesting the myth of objectivity in science content, we will never heal this divide.

  34. #34 revere
    November 2, 2008

    Winternight: Would I be right in assuming you cleave to a social constructionism and anti-realist view of epistemology? Perfectly respectable positions, if that’s the case. but not the only ones. And speaking as a scientist with a long interest in the philosophy of science (I had a seminar once with RB Braithwaite, one of the key figures in the great book, Wittgenstein’s Poker), I can tell you straight out that the social constructionsist view is a non-starter with scientists. I believe in the strong influence of the social world in science. Who couldn’t? It permeates everything we do. Science is a social activity and depends on trust, among other social items. But like almost all scientists I am also a naive realist and believe there is a real world out there, it exists independently from me, I can know it and science is one of the chief ways to do that. I think my view is closest to Susan Haack and Ian Hacking, although Susan and I have some differences.

    The question of objectivity is a complicated one. I was perusing a book by Peter Galison with that name this afternoon (he had a co-author but I don’t remember his/her name). There is much to say, as I am sure you know.

  35. #35 Cathie Currie
    November 2, 2008

    Winternight — As a social psychologist, I agree with Revere — there is a real world that is immutable by human perspective, though we make errors in our measures and interpretations. Our job as a scientist is to keep edging ever closer to the true nature of things, to ask good questions, and to seek discoveries and innovations that produce a magnitude of difference — not just a significant one.

    Our duty is to help others, not to keep ourselves or students in awe of cerebral-pyrotechnics. Although I have a doctorate in the stuff, I fail to see much gain in unsolvable mindbending philisophical twisters that have a ‘Oh well, what now?’ ending. My response is: “How is that going to help us cure cancer?”

    Please visit a cancer patient, see the suffering of an infant with a progressive metabolic disease, sit with a terminal cardiac patient. Then come back to tell us if you think social constructionism is worth expending our scarce science resources.

    For reasons that I do not yet understand, many in our graduate schools think theory requires protection from the real world. The word ‘applied’ is enough to make many a non-biomedical academic gag. But science theory is squarely in the real world. As Lewin said, there is nothing so practical as a good theory.

    Now I’ve had MY rant! Sorry. I’ve been holding myself back ever since Revere posted this topic. I think the high priority requirement for teaching science is to have practiced it — and practiced it well. Too often science educators are telling students what they were taught by someone who was taught . . .