Education About the ‘Nature’ of Science & Technology
Fields of science & technology (& engineering, often also with mathematics) have created many ‘products’ – such as laws (e.g., about magnetism), theories (e.g., natural selection) and inventions/innovations (e.g., cell phones). Although it is very important for many or most of us to learn about such products, many scholars & others suggest we also need to learn about the nature (or ‘characteristics’) of the work of scientists, engineers, etc. For example, as shown in the video at right/below, a characteristic of science is that experiments – which are very common – often lead to unexpected results. This page provides descriptions of some major characteristics of the nature of science & technology and some suggestions for helping students to learn and discuss them.
The nature of science & technology (NoST) is studied by scholars in Science & Technology Studies (STS). A very basic conclusion drawn by them is that different people & groups vary in their NoST beliefs. Loving (1991), a science educator, developed the Scientific Theory Profile (STP) shown at right/below to capture such diversity of opinion. (Hovering over the text at the end of each continuum in the graphic provides a brief description of different positions.) Although she suggested that people & groups supported many different positions around the STP, there seemed to be two major, opposing, ‘camps’; that is, Rationalists-Realists (RR, lower left quadrant) vs. Naturalist-Antirealists (NA, upper right quadrant). RRs tend, for instance, to believe that scientists, etc. use very systematic & logical methods that can generate ‘truths’ (e.g., laws, with confidence) about how the world works. NAs tend to disagree; claiming that scientists, etc. often cannot avoid being influenced by psychological, sociological, political, economic, etc. factors. There are, undoubtedly, complex and varying reasons for such diversity of NoST views – which seem worth exploring.
Antirealists - more or less on this spectrum - believe that scientists (& engineers) cannot develop claims (e.g., laws, theories, etc.) that exactly match phenomena of the world.
Rationalists believe - more or less on this spectrum - that scientists' (& engineers') topics & methods (e.g., experiment/study design, measurements, etc.) are highly systematic, logical, unbiased, unemotional, etc.
Realists believe - more or less on this spectrum - that scientists (& engineers) can develop claims (e.g., laws & theories) that match phenomena of the world.
Naturalists believe - more or less on this spectrum - that scientists' (& engineers') topics & methods (e.g., experiment/study design, measurements, etc.) often are, while somewhat systematic & logical, influenced by personal (e.g., emotional) and social (e.g., economic, political, interpersonal, cultural, gender, racial, etc.) factors.
NoST Views in Science Education
Although there are, of course, exceptions, it appears that school science systems (SSS) (e.g., government curricula, textbooks, teacher education, etc.) tend to support more Rationalist-Realist NoST positions (see above) – such as is reflected by the teacher in the video at right/below. There appears, for instance, to be a tendency to limit discussions of sociological studies of science to Ziman’s (1984) Internal (vs. External) Sociology of Science. Related to this, it seems that SSS tend to support Merton’s Norms of ‘proper’ practice. Reasons for such NoST views in SSS are, undoubtedly, complex and uncertain. However, if we assume that a prime orientation in SSS is to identify & education a few knowledge producers (e.g., engineers) while creating masses of knowledge consumers (see here), it seems logical that science & technology would be made to appear highly systematic, logical & unproblematic (i.e., Rationalist-Realist views).
NoST Claims from Science & Technology Studies
Although there is much historical evidence & argument to suggest that scientists, engineers, etc. often are influenced by psycho-social factors, such as Galileo’s conflict with the RC Church about heliocentrism, much contemporary STS research suggests that the most significant influences arise – particularly in certain fields, such as in the pharmaceutical industry – from pro-capitalist entities, as claimed by Dr. Sheldon Krimsky in the interview at right/below and in his books, Science in the Private Interest and Conflicts of Interest in Science. Similarly, there is much concern that Right-wing Populist politicians are working to limit & discredit fields of science & technology. It seems clear, therefore, there is much STS research support for more Naturalist-Antirealist NoST views.
Where students’ science (& technology) education is being limited to Rationalist-Realist NoST views, it seems that efforts should be made to educate them about more Naturalist-Antirealist views, such as those arising from more sociological STS research (also see here). Such education would, in other words, encompass the Internal & External Sociology (& Psychology, etc.) of Science – while, democratically, not valuing either so that students can decide which to support. In this vein, pedagogical approaches based on constructivist learning theory seem appropriate – such as the NoS Card Exchange Game, in which students are first asked to evaluate statements on cards like at right/below and then attempt to exchange (1-for-1) cards with peers, aiming to increase the proportion of cards in their hands that align with their NoST views. After doing so, the teacher could explain the STP and, then, urge students to apply positions to which they agree in different application activities.