fforts by state and local officials to enact balanced
treatment laws represent attempts to displace the method-
ological naturalism of science with theological supernatural-
ism. Advocates of creation science and intelligent design (ID)
also seek to wedge the supernatural into scientific explana-
tions. Robert Pennock (2000) distills the controversy to its
core features when he states, “debate [is] about truth itself
and how we come to know it” (p. 40). In this article I assume
methodological naturalism as a presupposition in modern
science. This is in agreement with the decision handed down
by Judge John E. Jones III in the Dover, Pennsylvania ID
case. Citing trial testimony from well-known philosophers of
science, Jones (2005) wrote, “Methodological naturalism is
a ‘ground rule’ of science today which requires scientists to
seek explanations in the world around us based upon what
we can observe, test, replicate, and verify” (p. 65).
Legal challenges to the teaching of evolution as a pro-
cess explicable by naturalistic causes or to exclusive reliance
on naturalism in science would alter science education by
redefining science. Langdon Gilkey (1985) notes that these
challenges pose additional threats. First, such laws would
establish a particular form of Christian religion in the sci-
ence classroom. This threatens free religious life in our
society as well as freedom from religion. Second, such laws
attack academic freedom. States often legislate what subjects
are to be taught in the curriculum, but they should not dic-
tate which theories are to be taught within these mandated
subjects (pp. 13-14).
Attacks on the nature of science should motivate us to
teach not only that science adds to our body of knowledge
but also to emphasize how it does this. In what follows, I
set forth an interactive activity titled “Epistemology and the
Nature of Science” designed for this purpose. Epistemology
is the formal study of the nature and limits of human knowl-
edge. It includes careful assessments of the limitations of
the methods we employ when we make claims about what
it is we know. The interactive activity helps students realize
that the body of knowledge we associate with science is
established using specific epistemic methods. I begin with a
brief description of the format of the activity, which involves
constructivist listening and the dyad. Following this, in Part
I, I canvas how student responses reflect and fail to reflect
major ways of knowing and their relation to science. In Part
II, I use Judge William Overton’s list of the characteristics
of science—from the 1982 Arkansas creation trial—to focus
discussion specifically on the nature of science.
Constructivist Listening & the
I developed Epistemology and the Nature of Science
as an interactive activity for use with my Grade 9 students
six years ago. Currently, I use it for my Grade 8 Pre-AP
Introduction to Chemistry, Physics, and Earth Sciences
course and my Grade 9 Pre-AP Biology and regular Biology
classes. I have also used it with adults who teach science and
math for Grades 5-12 for professional development. Central
to this activity are the concepts of constructivist listening
and the dyad.
Constructivist listening is a process that allows one
to talk without being interrupted and thereby to explore
thoughts in an unimpeded manner. Talking can be as impor-
tant to the learning process as listening. This is evident when
teachers use questioning strategies that encourage students
to talk through solutions for particular problems. Teachers
often say they didn’t really learn a subject in depth until they
had to teach others. This may be due, in part, to the fact that
teachers must talk about their subject areas. Constructivist
listening is not a conversation or dialogue. Listening is really
for the benefit of the speaker. It allows the speaker to explore
content or feelings without being interrupted. The dyad is
one structure that promotes constructivist listening. The
word dyad means “two as one.” The dyad allows two people
to have equal, uninterrupted talking time. After students
are paired, they are given a prompt. We follow guidelines
adapted from Ripples of Hope (see Weissglass & Sarason,
1998, pp. 44-45).
• Each person is given equal time to talk.
• The listener does not interpret, paraphrase, analyze,
give advice, or break in with a personal story.
• Confidentiality is maintained.
• The talker is not to criticize or complain about the
listener or mutual acquaintances in his/her turn.
Epistemology & the Nature of
Science: Part 1
After students are acquainted with the concepts of
constructivist listening and the dyad format, they are paired
together and given a 40 cm x 33 cm white board and a
Epistemology & the Nature of Science:
A CLASSROOM STRATEGY
is Professional Development Coordinator, Center for
Learning and Teaching in the West, Center for Science, Mathematics,
and Technology Education at Colorado State University and Blevins
JHS Science Chair, Poudre School District, Ft. Collins, CO, 80526;
EPISTEMOLOGY & NATURE OF SCIENCE 525
526 THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER, VOLUME 69, NO. 9, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2007
marker. To help them explore their thoughts, I give them the
How do we gather knowledge?
I clarify by asking, “If you want to know more about some topic,
what do you do? Where do you go?” One student records what
the other brainstorms for one minute. Students then switch
roles for one minute. When the students have completed the
dyad, we reconstruct the ideas on the chalkboard. I ask each
dyad to share one idea from its board. After they have all shared
I ask if anyone else would like to add more to our brainstorming
list. The confidentiality rule helps in two ways. First, it protects
students from being embarrassed by the ideas they might share
in the dyad. In this activity students choose what ideas they
share. Second, it ensures that my next classes will enjoy a fresh
approach to the exercise uncontaminated by suggestions from
the previous class.
We now compare the ideas that the class has generated
through the dyads with major methods of gathering knowledge
recognized by philosophers: authority, empiricism, rationalism,
aestheticism, and pragmatism (see Viney & King, 2003, pp.
15-18). I put these ideas on the overhead and we use this docu-
ment to categorize the students’ ideas. In this exercise we focus
on these epistemic methods and examine them in terms of their
relationship to science.
Authority is a common way to assess truth, and authorities
exist in the form of books, institutions, and people. In a recent
classroom sample of 59 students, 80% of the responses fit into
this category. Student ideas included such examples as parents,
books, the Internet, teachers, experts, and magazines. Reference
to authority is used in all human endeavors; it is used in teaching,
law, religion, and science. It is a convenient and efficient means
of gaining knowledge, but it can also be a source of misinforma-
tion. In fact, there have been long stretches of history marked
almost exclusively by reliance on authority, tradition, and revela-
tion. Masses of people the world over are still informed and live
their lives according to the dictates of such methods. There are
important questions regarding this method of knowing and how
it should be used. What should one believe when authorities
disagree with each other? Is authority open to independent con-
firmation? Is it regarded as absolute? These are critical questions
important to any scientific endeavor. My hope is that students
come to realize that, as far as science is concerned, an authority’s
claims are only as secure as the scientific evidence that lies in
back of them.
Empiricism places emphasis on experience in the acquisi-
tion of knowledge, usually with special attention to experimenta-
tion. Science prefers using numerous empirical methods through
induction to discover natural patterns. Francis Bacon champi-
oned this marriage between empiricism and inductive reasoning
by enumeration and is often regarded as the herald of the empiri-
cal spirit. Ruse (1999) points out that William Whewell believed
the best kind of science seeks a consilience of inductions in
which inductions from different areas of science are explained by
the same principle (p. 58).
Empirical methods of gathering knowledge usually come
in second place in our classroom exercise. In my recent stu-
dent sample, 20% of responses fit into this category. Students’
responses included: trial and error, experiments, and observing.
Rationalism, or the use of reason to gain knowledge, comes in
a distant third on my students’ lists. Over many classes, less than
1% of responses fit into this category. In my recent student sample,
0% of the responses fit into this category. Nevertheless, students
occasionally mention logical problem solving, argumentation, and
mathematical equations. Descartes is often viewed as the founder
of modern rationalism, though rationalism, like empiricism, had
roots in the thought of numerous Greek philosophers.
Students often use logic, but they are unaware of formal
classifications, for they have rarely been introduced to them. For
example, students argue by analogy—similar circumstances war-
ranting similar conclusions—when reasoning with their parents.
Matt may say, “Katie’s parents let her go to the 10:00 p.m. movie
if she is getting at least a B average. I have a B+ average, so I think
I should be able to go to the movie.” Charles Darwin used an
argument by analogy when comparing artificial selection with
natural selection. Artificial selection is a non-random human
selection working on a random genetic variation. Natural selec-
tion is a non-random selection through differential survival and
reproduction working on a random genetic variation. William
Paley’s argument from design is also a well-known example.
Objects in the universe have the appearance of design, so they
must have a designer. Darwin knew this argument and reflected
upon the human eye as an example (1859/2004, pp. 156-163).
He reasoned that there is great variation in eyes and that the
complexity of the eye is reducible to a series of small, adaptive
steps. He correctly predicted that eyes representing these steps
would be found in nature.
Students also understand elementary deduction. I ask my
students, if we all agree that teachers are the “best,” then what
must we conclude if Mrs. Klass is a teacher? Students quickly see
that Mrs. Klass is the best. I ask them if complementary angles
are defined as adding up to 90˚ and we know that one of two
angles is equal to 30˚, can we use reason to determine the second
angle? They quickly learn that in deductive arguments a premise
or axiom is given to be true and this leads to inescapable conclu-
sions. Mathematicians rely heavily upon deductive reasoning.
However, deductive reasoning comes at a price. Students realize
that if the axiom is not true then the conclusion is in question.
Empiricists favor inductive reasoning, for it utilizes indepen-
dent lines of empirical evidence to support a common conclu-
sion. As previously noted, Bacon suggested that science should
seek patterns by constructing generalizations from numerous
direct observations. For many centuries Europeans noticed that
every swan they observed was white in color. Swans were con-
sidered always to be white, but then black swans were found.
This simple example illustrates that induction provides only a
The hypothetico-deductive method combines deductive
and inductive procedures. Deduction is used to generate spe-
cific testable hypotheses from a theory. These hypotheses are
then used to make predictions. These predictions, in turn, are
tested against the observations that we make. Evolutionary
theorists hypothesized that whales evolved from a land mammal.
Informed by this hypothesis, paleontologists make predictions
concerning what type of fossil evidence may be discovered in
the future. This method has enjoyed great success. The process
that Charles Sanders Peirce (1955, pp. 150-156) called abduction
complements the hypothetico-deductive method, but works in
the opposite direction: Here we look for hypotheses that explain
the observed patterns. Early paleontologists noticed that fossils
indicate that life has changed over time. Competing hypotheses,
which attempted to explain this pattern, included catastrophism
and evolution. Note that it matters not whether data are collected
from the past or the present, but whether the data stand in the
proper relation to the hypothesis.
In the many years I have done this exercise, only two classes
have included beauty as a method of gaining knowledge. I let
students know that aestheticism is not necessarily beauty in
the usual physical sense. DNA is an elegant structure. Watson
(1968) reports that it was said of the double helix model of DNA
that it was, “too pretty not to be true” (p. 134). In philosophy,
math, and science, one form of aestheticism may be represented
by Ockham’s Razor set forth by William of Ockham in the 14th
century; simplicity is an aesthetic preference. In modern terms
simple solutions are better or more aesthetic. Alfred North
Whitehead’s words are the core of wisdom on Ockham’s razor,
“Seek simplicity and distrust it” (Whitehead, 1971, p. 163). The
Greek ideal of aesthetic perfection was balance and symmetry.
Copernicus and others were led by this ideal to posit circular
orbits for the planets. No one using the Greek ideal of beauty
would have predicted Kepler’s elliptical orbits. The ideal of
beauty is subject to revision.
According to the American psychologist-philosopher
William James, pragmatism is both a method for discovering
what is true and a theory of truth (James 1907/1943, pp. 65-
66). As a method, pragmatism is empirical for it appeals only to
experience. Both the method and the theory of truth emphasize
the dynamic, mutating, growing nature of the human intellec-
tual enterprise. James (1910/1978) asked rhetorically, “What
has concluded, that we might conclude in regard to it?” (p. 190).
For James, there are always new methods, new instruments, and
new truths that were not apprehended in previous generations.
He argued that the world is an open-ended process so there
is no final once-and-for-all conclusion. What we take as true,
according to James, may be only as justified as it can possibly
be in a given context. Tomorrow the beliefs about which we are
certain today, that we act on today, that we live by today, may be
replaced. A surgical procedure that is accepted in a given period
may be replaced by something unexpected resulting from the
development of a new instrument or new views on the causes
of disease. I ask my students if they would like to go to a dentist
who uses tools and practices from the turn of the century or
one who uses the knowledge gained up to the present. American
industry has always had a pragmatic basis because there is both
value and profit in utility and workability. Cost/benefit analysis
used in evaluating the acceptability of new technologies, such
as medications, may also serve as an example. A deeper grasp of
pragmatism encourages epistemic humility because we realize
that the claims we make are provisional.
There are other methods of obtaining knowledge such as
consensus and vividness of experience. We briefly explore these
methods. I ask students if the sun comes up every day. They all say
yes, that is what they experience and it is vivid; however, it does
not come up every day, rather, the Earth rotates. Because they are
members of a democratic society, students are aware of the limita-
tions of the consensus model. They also seem to realize that get-
ting at what is true is problematic. The majority may be wrong.
Epistemology & the Nature of
Science: Part II
Again we use the dyad format and white boards to explore
the following prompt:
What is Science?
Students and even adults with whom I have worked often run
out of things to say during this dyad, even though it lasts only
one minute. If they run out of things to say, they must remain
silent until the minute is complete, preserving equal time for
each talker. After gathering their ideas on the chalkboard I let
them know that there are many different views about how sci-
ence gathers knowledge. Common among the students’ lists
are content specific disciplines within science such as the study
of chemicals, life, and the solar system. Science as a process
is usually represented by observation and experiment. In my
recent sampling, 0.8% of the responses represented science as a
process. The data I have collected indicate that my Grades 8 and
9 students overwhelmingly think of science as a body of knowl-
edge. While it is true that science strives to develop a unified sys-
tem of knowledge, it is an understanding of its epistemic meth-
ods that is crucial for grasping how science works. In the past I
have compared student views with those of Karl Popper, Thomas
Kuhn, and the characteristics of science as defined by the 1982
Rev. Bill McLean et al. v. Arkansas BOE (act 509) which tested a
balanced treatment law. I have refined the activity to explore only
the characteristics of science as defined by the above court case.
This legal definition is well suited for my purposes because it is
informed by and reflects the views of scientists, philosophers of
science, and science educators.
Judge Overton, writing for the 1982 case, listed five charac-
teristics of science:
1. It is guided by natural law.
2. Explanations are in reference to natural law.
3. Hypotheses are testable against the empirical world—sci-
ence is public knowledge.
4. Conclusions are tentative; there is no truly final word in
5. Theories and hypotheses are falsifiable (Overton, 1984,
Let us comment briefly on each of these characteristics. The
students explore how these characteristics fit with the ways we
Science Is Guided by Natural Law
Science limits itself to an exploration of the natural world,
which (at least for condensed matter) operates in a regular,
predictable manner based on identifiable or potentially-identifi-
able forces. According to Pennock, science is “agnostic” since
the question of the supernatural is outside the boundaries of its
method of investigation (2000, p. 337). Coyne (2005) rightly
observes, “The gold standard for modern scientific achievement
is the publication of new results in a peer-reviewed scientific
journal” (p. 32). Furthermore, apart from reviews of the litera-
ture and purely exploratory research, articles should put forth
positive evidence, which can be tested by the scientific com-
munity. Working scientists around the world represent diverse
EPISTEMOLOGY & NATURE OF SCIENCE 527
cultural and religious backgrounds; however, as scientists, they
are constrained by empirical evidence. It is important to note that
there is a difference between professional science and popular
science. Scientists are allowed to explore their own beliefs and
speculations within popular venues, but such views might not
be accepted in scientific journals. For example, Richard Dawkins
is militantly atheistic, but his views on religion would never pass
peer review in a science journal. Students and the general public
may develop misconceptions about the nature of science if they
are not aware of this distinction.
Scientific Explanations Reference Natural
If we are guided by natural law in science, it follows that
our explanations must be in reference to natural law. If one’s car
breaks down or one feels ill, one reasonably expects a naturalistic
explanation. An animistic explanation of car problems would be
ludicrous. If a mechanic claims that demons were causing engine
problems we would be justified in finding a new mechanic.
A reliable mechanic adopts methodological naturalism. “Your
problems,” says the mechanic, “could be in your battery, electri-
cal system, starter, or alternator and I can run tests to identify the
exact cause.” Whether the subject is a car, a flashlight, physical
health, mental health, the weather or an earthquake, our society
is usually scientific in preferring naturalistic explanations that
can be independently verified.
Scientific Explanations Are Testable Against
the Empirical World
Scientific ideas are based upon naturalistic explanations
and are thus empirically verifiable. Scientific knowledge is public
knowledge. For example, predictions can be derived from the
theory of evolution that different organisms have lived in different
temporal intervals. This is a prediction that has been overwhelm-
ingly confirmed by examining the history of the Earth as it is
revealed by the fossil record. Predictions can also be derived that
organisms would look less like those of the present day as you
move back in time through older layers. This again is a testable
prediction and ironically, first observed by nineteenth century
creationists. There are also predictions that the organisms on
islands off major coasts would be closely related to species on
the mainland. Furthermore, the fossils found in these locations
should be related to present day organisms. These biogeographi-
cal patterns in time and space are predicted and are testable. Even
more significant is the fact that scientists from different religious
and cultural backgrounds can come to very close agreement
on these historical patterns. Kenrick and Davis (2004) observe,
“Modern science has dropped the mythological and theological
in favor of explanations couched in terms of natural causes. This
approach is called methodological naturalism, and its results
have achieved an unprecedented degree of corroboration and
acceptance across cultural divides” (p. 205). We accept scientific
theories only when they make useful and dependable predictions
about the natural world that can be independently confirmed
empirically. Furthermore, according to Ruse (2005), “… branches
of science strive to be internally coherent and externally consis-
tent with other areas of science” (p. 35). As we uncover our curric-
ulum during the year, we talk about the historical development of
specific theories in science. Students can see the shaping of ideas
through empirical methods. Students also come to understand
that the experiences of which science is most sure are those that
have withstood numerous independent empirical verifications.
The Conclusions of Science Are Tentative
In science no one can claim to have the final word. One
might say that truth in science is not spelled with a capital T.
Scientific explanations are open to review in the light of new
evidence. The history of science is replete with examples. The
tentative nature of scientific explanations positively reinforces
a healthy skeptical habit of mind. According to Jonathan Rauch
(1994), “At the bottom of this kind of skepticism is a simple
proposition: we must all take seriously the idea that any and all
of us might, at any time, be wrong. Taking seriously the idea that
we might be wrong is not exactly a dogma. It is, rather, an intel-
lectual style, an attitude or ethic” (p. 45).
The tentative nature of science fuels skepticism about puta-
tive absolute truths handed down by authority. If everyone must
be open to having their ideas checked, then doubt and curios-
ity become valued. We take for granted the fact that science
has institutionalized curiosity, but in the past curiosity about
certain things was considered idle and sinful. Curiosity as a sin
provided a moral argument against certain knowledge-gathering
methods, which included, but were not limited to, philosophy,
mathematics and scientific inquiry (Harrison, 2001). Dr. Stephen
Thompson, a chemist at Colorado State University, advocates
teaching students to always ask, “How do you know that?” The
question encourages curiosity, skepticism, and demands sup-
porting evidence. Skepticism, like curiosity, was once regarded as
a sin, but in scientific epistemology, skepticism is a virtue.
The tentative nature of scientific knowledge should encour-
age students to preface their solutions with phrases like, “The
evidence supports ... .” “The best interpretation seems to be ... .”
“This represents the best thinking at this time ... .” Stephen Jay
Gould (2000) would call the very essence of science a method
devised to undermine proof by authority. We must be vigilant
for the tentative nature of science cannot be overstated, lest we
forget and turn scientific methodology into an empirical myth
dominated by authority and dogma (p. 31).
Scientific Hypotheses Are Falsifiable
According to the eminent philosopher of science, Sir Karl
Popper (1935/1959, pp. 40-44), scientific hypotheses and theo-
ries are falsifiable. Philip Kitcher (1982) states this same idea
more memorably, “Science can succeed only if it can fail” (p.
45). The concept of a supernatural intelligent designer is not a
scientifically testable assertion and is therefore not a scientific
explanation. Successful scientific ideas are empirically testable
and have withstood numerous attempts to debunk them.
It is important for scientists to speculate freely and be cre-
ative; however, in the end it is an empirically based decentralized
checking process that determines whether or not these ideas
make useful and dependable predictions. Alfred Wegener (see
Hay, Nehru & Wiswall, 2003, pp. 20-35) thought “outside the
box” and concluded that continents had drifted over time, but
he had no testable method for how continents could move and
so his idea was marginalized. In the 1960s the evidence for sea-
floor spreading became empirically powerful and convincing.
Wegener’s ideas then became a part of plate tectonic theory.
Summary & Challenge
According to Popper (1935/1959, p. 44), the final claim to
objectivity in science is that it is a collective enterprise where any
individual’s views are subject to criticism by others. One might
say that there is freedom of belief and speech in science, but
EPISTEMOLOGY & NATURE OF SCIENCE 529
not freedom of knowledge. The reason I think scientific meth-
odology is so powerful is because of its empirical ruthlessness.
Authority and expertise are used in science, but they are open
to being checked. Philosophically, Einstein resisted the ideas of
quantum mechanics saying that, “God does not play dice with
the world” (Clarke, 1971, p. 340). Yet, the empirical evidence has
allowed belief in indeterminacy to flourish in physics. Darwin
doggedly stood by his theory of evolution by natural selection
even though the scientific community did not yet know the
mechanisms of heredity. His speculation that when this mecha-
nism was better understood it would support his theory was
born out by empirical research. It is important for our students
and the general public to understand that in science no one has
the final word and independent empirical testing is the trump
card for knowledge gathering.
If you want to believe the Earth is at the center of our
planetary system, that the entire fossil record was created from
a worldwide flood, or that gaps in human knowledge about the
natural world are evidence for the supernatural, that is all right.
If, however, you want your beliefs recognized as scientific knowl-
edge you must be open to empirical tests. If your beliefs do not
stand up to the empirical evidence, they will not be included in
scientific texts. Indeed, the intellectual community may not even
take them seriously (cf. Rauch, 1993, pp. 116-117).
Julian Weissglass, Professor of Mathematics at the University
of California-Santa Barbara, told me that the essence of leader-
ship is taking responsibility for something that matters to you.
If science and its methodologies matter to you then I challenge
you to make them a central theme to your science instruction.
Science obviously matters to those of us who teach it. Yet, the
methodological naturalism on which science is based is continu-
ally called into question by creationists and proponents of ID. It
follows that those who care about science have a responsibility to
provide a deeper understanding of the epistemological grounds
on which it rests. I hope that this article makes a small contribu-
tion in this direction.
I am grateful to Donald Viney and Wayne Viney for offering
helpful suggestions on earlier drafts of this paper.
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