Do Scientists Understand Science?

Writedit has been a bit preoccupied lately but was stunned by an editorial by Richard Gallagher in The Scientist entitled Why the Philosophy of Science Matters. He starts off:

You might expect that newly minted science graduatesᅠ-ᅠwho presumably think of themselves as scientists, and who I’d thought of as scientistsᅠ-ᅠwould have a well-developed sense of what science is. So it’s pretty shocking to discover that a large proportion of them don’t have a clue.

Summarizing James Williams’ commentary on What Makes Science ‘Science’?, Gallagher notes that “a sizeable proportion of science graduates entering teacher training couldn’t define what is a scientific fact, law or hypothesis.”

What? They think they don’t need to worry about these things, that they can buy them in a kit from Fisher?

Williams’ findings are breathtaking:

Here are some of the data from the 74 graduates that I’ve surveyed to date:

• 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 41% 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. Here are just a few of their definitions of a scientific theory: “An idea based on a little evidence, not fact”; “an idea about something, not necessarily true”; “unproven ideas.”

Some of the graduates implicitly or explicitly equated theories with hypotheses. For example, one defined a theory as “not necessarily proven correct. A hypothesized statement explaining something.” Another defined a hypothesis as “a theory needing investigation,” another stated that a hypothesis was “a theory based on knowledge” and yet another as a “theory proven by experiment.” Conversely, one graduate defined a theory as “a large hypothesis.” Another definition separated out a theory from experimental science by defining it as “the paperwork behind observations, such as literature that tries to rationalize observations and experiments.”

Oh my. Yes, this is just 74 grad students at the University of Sussex intending to become science teachers, but some of them already had their doctorates, and “the majority had high-quality degrees.” Williams ties these findings back to the need for a bit of teaching in the history and philosophy of science for those entrusted with introducing the next generation to sound science versus that put forth by the whackaloons of the world.

Beyond science teachers, could this omission in the training of modern scientists (Williams describes it as “utilitarian”, though I doubt many would consider themselves as seeking to maximize probable happiness in the tradition of Mills) be the missing piece of the puzzle in teaching responsible conduct of research? Can scientists act responsibly if they don’t know, at heart, what science is, other than a means to an end (e.g., their academic and, increasingly, financial success)?



  1. BB said

    It’s creationism’s fault, I tell ya. They conflate the popular meaning of theory and hypothesis, so that evolutionary theory becomes …. unproven fact or supposition. To be fair, not one grad course of mine at 2 stellar institutions taught the definitions of theory, hypothesis, etc. It was assumed we learned it in college, and college assumed we learned in in K-12.
    It has to start, IMO, in K-12 science education, with teachers, not necessarily science teachers, but early ed teachers doing a science unit with the little ones, giving them vocabulary words and explaining in context.

  2. BB said

    PS- I hate kits. If I had my way, no grad student would ever use a kit. Kits should be the privilege of a PI, I say.

  3. Andre said

    I would be interested to see how the results correlate with the fields the students were in. I hypothesize (!) that students in physics would have a better understanding of the distinction between laws and theories, whereas biology students would have a better feel for hypotheses as distinct from the other two. One’s first (or perhaps second) physics course will probably discuss the relationship between laws like Faraday’s and electromagnetic theory. In chemistry you would learn about Boyle’s law but also thermodynamics. What’s the analogy in biology? Perhaps inheritance in relation to evolution by natural selection?

    In contrast, I feel as though I had to do more explicit hypothesizing in introductory biology labs, but I could be wrong.

  4. JSinger said

    Can scientists act responsibly if they dont know, at heart, what science is, other than a means to an end (e.g., their academic and, increasingly, financial success)?

    Sorry, but I know perfectly well what science is. Mastering the jargon of an abstract notion of The Scientific Method that has nothing to do with real research has is irrelevant to science. The day a reviewer complains that I’m not using “fact” correctly I’ll worry about what some pedantic goofball thinks.

  5. Color me unimpressed, Singer. Those “abstract notions” developed over time and into something quite useful: you might think applying FGF to your harvested epithelial cells might be science, but frankly, it’s just toying around. Science is only Science when it plays a role in elucidating the natural world: for that, one must actually understand, appreciate, and apply the formal philosophy of the scientific method.

    If you disagree, of course, you’re welcome to take grad students into your lab who don’t know what a hypothesis is. I’m sure you’ll be thrilled at their rigor and output.

  6. […] Scientists who don’t know science. WritEdit at Medical Writing, Editing & Grantsmanship comments on a shocking study that showed a poor understanding of the basic principles of science among a group of graduates from an English university. […]

  7. niewiap said

    I don’t find this data very surprising. No matter what the formal education is like, popular uses of the words ‘hypothesis’, ‘theory’, ‘fact’, ‘truth’ in casual conversation and in the media are very vague and misleading at times. That does not mean that a graduate cannot distinguish something that is based on evidence from something that’s not. I think that it’s the wording of the replies that gives them a hard time, not the understanding of the concept itself. I would agree, however, that there should be like a Scientific Method 101 class required in college, since science graduates are supposed to be verbose in that kind of vocabulary.

  8. Maxine said

    This is based on a “survey” of 74 people. Enough said.

    True – and one wonders about IRB approval. But there is the need for better education so woo is not put forth (& accepted) as fact or even theory … and I’ve reviewed plenty of grant applications that demonstrated the PI was not clear on the concept of sound scientific method. I agree with BB that the time to teach these concepts is in K-12, which might require their addition to the standardized tests to which all US schools now seem to teach. – writedit

  9. JSinger said

    That does not mean that a graduate cannot distinguish something that is based on evidence from something that’s not. I think that it’s the wording of the replies that gives them a hard time, not the understanding of the concept itself.

    Precisely, and that’s precisely the distinction James Stein is still failing to grasp. I know how to do rigorous, meaningful experiments; that has nothing to do with using some sacred vocabulary in the approved fashion.

    This is based on a “survey” of 74 people. Enough said.

    And those 74 people aren’t scientists. No matter. You could go to a statistically significant number of faculty lounges and people will still use “theory” and “hypothesis” interchangeably, far more often than not.

  10. […] folks have not seen some of the hair-raisingly bad research plans that I have (perhaps written by scientists not clear on the concept of science). Indeed, logistics and dissemination plans seem to be in the formative […]

  11. writedit said

    Greg Cuppan picks up on the concept of do scientists understand why they publish papers and is soliciting input over at Knowledge Management and Communication in the Life Sciences. The recent spate of journal retractions suggests some straying from the concept of supporting the community of science and advancing work in their discipline (versus their own career). I’m not sure I’d put the publication of fraudulent data in the category of soliciting healthy debate among their peers to confirm, modify, or disprove new ideas, techniques, pathways, and so forth.

  12. M. Sheldon Fontenot said

    First you have to distinguish between understanding and repetition of information. It’s like this. Knowledge is like the plot of a story. Romeo and juliet, for instance deals with two people falling in love against the wishes and judgements of others and leads to a “Beautiful and tragic end”. Not very concise is it? Lots of room for question, such as, “How did these two people meet?” “Why don’t people around them accept their choices?” So on and so forth. Understanding is Romeo and Juliet in full length with details upon details with a little allowance for imagination.

    I’m not saying that these people don’t know what they are doing or know what they are talking about. What I AM saying is that When you want know about something it doesn’t help to know what it is. I can call a tree an omelet but it wouldn’t change what it is. So, here we have what I call, “Personal Subjective Relativity” referring to the ways through relation to previously known interactions one can allow a certain part of information to become integrated into past perceptions and future projections. Allowing the information to not only become memorized but also improved upon by the relative behaviors of that instance to another.

    So what you have is a dynamic association of each word, placed into a specific context that is unique to that individual. Past experiences and Future projections have a great role in an individuals ability to comprehend certain things. Leaving almost everything regardless of one individual’s means of conveyance may only take to those using the same tools to understand as the individual conveying is using to convey.

    I may be talking gibberish but I think i made a point.

  13. I agree with BB. In fact I wrote a similar entry complaining about the lack of understanding of what science is. Great minds think alike, I guess. 🙂

    Also, since my teachers/professors have felt the need to reiterate the “central dogma” of biology every. single. year. Perhaps they could do the same with the difference between hypotheses, theories, and laws. I think it’s more harmful to science to have scientists who don’t understand that difference. If they forget the DNA-RNA-protein order, they can just look it up and it won’t really hurt anybody. They’ll look stupid, but people have recovered from that.

    • writedit said

      Thanks for the insightful comments, which we need from folks just coming out of the trenches, so to speak. – writedit

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