"Science class at Kalvskindet school (ca. 1900)" by The Municipal Archives of TrondheimCC BY 2.0

Rethinking Science Education

December 28, 2018


The general public has expressed strong confidence and trust in science (Sloss & Hale, Working Paper). Opinion polls indicate science careers are rated among the most admired and trusted occupations, despite their limitations.

If you ask most people they will probably agree that science education is important. American kids don’t perform well on some international science tests, and performance gets even worse as they grow into teenagers.

Maybe science education needs to be reformed? Maybe science needs to be reconceptualized by educators, researchers, popular science advocates, writers, and students?

General scientific knowledge and scientific thinking is essential in a society largely driven by scientific endeavors and technological advances. Science is a broad concept, and its implications are vast. Scientific thinking is good thinking. Science reflects how things work and how to make them work better.

In Carl Sagan’s excellent book The Demon Haunted World, he discusses the benefits of science and the downfalls of a scientific illiterate society (1996). One of the key arguments Sagan presents for the importance of science is in the area of medical science.

“Advances in medicine and agriculture have saved vastly more lives than have been lost in all the wars of history” (Sagan 1996, p.11).

This is just one of the many points Sagan discusses regarding the importance of science. He also points to the fact that a scientifically uninformed society is a society that is limited in decision making and understanding of a technologically driven world. Sagan’s words are as relevant today as they were over twenty years ago. Science is the antidote to our current non-intellectual environment. Science (or at least quality science) is a meritocracy.

Claims and beliefs must be evaluated on their own merits. Science, like no other endeavor, disregards overreliance on authority. Science has limitations, and those engaging in scientific practice sometimes violate principles of good science. However scientific processes—regarding modeling, describing, predicting, and explaining phenomena—are the most successful processes ever devised.  

Reconceptualizing Science

One of the first steps in a better scientific education is reconceptualizing (thinking differently) science. General scientific knowledge and the concepts it entails are important; it is also important to recognize scientific concepts change over time.

A popular misconception is that scientific concepts are absolute and immune to change. Water, earth, and air were once classified as elements, now they are known to be compounds consisting of element combinations. Science is replete with examples of concept change. Scientific information is tentative; it changes according to evidence. Science, its conceptualizations, and operationalization are concerned with good epistemic values. Good epistemic values, as described by Paul Thagard (2012), are those of evidential quality; knowledge values that are in agreement with logic and evidence (essentially epistemic rationality characteristics).

A comprehensive understanding of science and its implications extend beyond merely knowledge of scientific theories, facts, principles, and so on. In addition to general scientific knowledge, a scientific education should involve scientific cognition. Scientific cognition is broad and can be applied in many areas; it’s not just about reading science papers, conducting research, or retrieving scientific facts from memory. Deanna Kuhn asserts that the essence of scientific thinking is coordinating belief with evidence (2011). At the very least, scientific cognition involves philosophy of science, scientific research methodologies, statistical/probabilistic reasoning, and logic (both deductive and inductive). The general components of scientific cognition include subcomponents. It is unrealistic to expect most people to acquire an exceptional level of knowledge in each of these areas. A high level of knowledge in these areas is not essential to scientific cognition; a general understanding is enough.  

Drummond and Fischhoff (2015) found that scientific reasoning is distinct from measures of scientific literacy, even though there is a positive association between the two. In my research, we found a moderately strong positive association between general scientific knowledge and scientific cognition (Hale, Sloss, and Lawson 2017). A complete scientific education should show a strong positive association between scientific literacy and scientific cognition. Knowledge in one of these areas should be a strong positive predictor of knowledge in the other area.

Personal Epistemology?

When I ask you about your personal epistemology, I am asking you how you know something: What criteria do you use to decide you have acquired knowledge?

An epistemic understanding is important.  Kuhn describes three general types of epistemology: absolutist, multiplist, and evaluativist (Kuhn 2001). An individual’s approach to knowledge is developmental and generally changes with age.

An absolutist thinks about knowledge in terms of its certainty, objectivity, and reality. Knowledge to the absolutist is not to be modified; it is absolute and derived from external sources that are right because the absolutist “knows so,” with no specific criteria required. As one gets older, the absolutist view of knowledge often changes to a multiplist view.

The multiplist adheres to the belief that people have different opinions, and those opinions are equally valid; each person has a right to an opinion that is no better or worse than the opinion of others. At the most advanced level—the evaluativist level—knowledge is acquired through considering alternatives, evidence, and arguments; knowledge is dependent on the preponderance of evidence.

High level scientific thinking demonstrates high levels of an evaluativist epistemology. I encourage students to consistently question themselves about their knowledge. When you decide you know something, ask yourself how you know. This questioning strategy may lead to consistent scientific thinking.  

Future Research    

A key focus for extensive investigation is the development of a model that allows at least a basic framework that can be used in teaching students and the general public. This type of investigation requires a multidisciplinary approach and a line of studies involving different science related areas. The cognitive processes underpinning scientific cognition are both important and measurable. Assessments, of both scientific cognition and scientific literacy, can be revised and expanded in an effort to increase sensitivity and make them more comprehensive.   Educators, including popular science representatives, need to demonstrate the appropriate knowledge required to promote strategies to improve science education.

Rethinking science education involves at the most basic level acknowledging the broad nature of science, promoting the message that science is hard but learnable, identifying and accepting the limitations of science, and understanding science is about more than just retrieving scientific facts from memory. Science education is valuable for everyone.


Drummond, C., and B. Fischhoff. 2015. Development and Validation of the Scientific Reasoning Scale. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. doi: 10.1002/bdm.1906.

Hale, J., G. Sloss, and A. Lawson. 2017. Association Between Scientific Cognition and Scientific Literacy (Brief Review). Knowledge Summit. Retrieved on December.15, 2018 from http://jamiehalesblog.blogspot.com/2017/10/association-between-scientific.html.

Kuhn, D. 2001. How Do People Know? Psychological Science, 12(1), 1-8.

———. 2011. What is scientific thinking and how does it develop? In U. Goswami (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development 2nd Edition, 497–523. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sagan, C. 1996. The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.                 

Sloss, G.S., and J. Hale. Paper Forthcoming. Knowledge in, belief in and attitudes toward science.

Thagard, P. 2012. The Cognitive Science of Science. Explanation, Discovery, and Conceptual Change. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 

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