highly developed and well-tested theories. These theories, in turn, can explain bodies of data and predict outcomes of experiments. They are also tools for further development of the subject. An important component of science is the knowledge of the limitations of current theories, that is, an understanding of those aspects of a theory that are well tested and hence are well established, and of those aspects that are not well tested and hence are provisional and likely to be modified as new empirical evidence is acquired.

The process by which scientific theories are developed and the form that those theories take differ from one domain of science to another, but all sciences share certain common features at the core of their problem-solving and inquiry approaches. Chief among these is the attitude that data and evidence hold a primary position in deciding any issue. Thus, when well-established data, from experiment or observation, conflict with a theory or hypothesis, then that idea must be modified or abandoned and other explanations must be sought that can incorporate or take account of the new evidence. This also means that models, theories, and hypotheses are valued to the extent that they make testable (or in principle testable) precise predictions for as yet unmeasured or unobserved effects; provide a coherent conceptual framework that is consistent with a body of facts that are currently known; and offer suggestions of new paths for further study.

A process of argumentation and analysis that relates data and theory is another essential feature of science. This includes evaluation of data quality, modeling, and development of new testable questions from the theory, as well as modifying theories as data dictates the need. Finally, scientists need to be able to examine, review, and evaluate their own knowledge. Holding some parts of a conceptual framework as more or less established and being aware of the ways in which that knowledge may be incomplete are critical scientific practices.

The classic scientific method as taught for many years provides only a very general approximation of the actual working of scientists. The process of theory development and testing is iterative, uses both deductive and inductive logic, and incorporates many tools besides direct experiment. Modeling (both mechanical models and computer simulations) and scenario building (including thought experiments) play an important role in the development of scientific knowledge. The ability to examine one’s own knowledge and conceptual frameworks, to evaluate them in relation to new information or competing alternative frameworks, and to alter them by a deliberate and conscious effort are key scientific practices.

Different Perspectives on the Process of Science

Those who study the nature of science and the learning of science have a variety of perspectives not only on key elements of scientific practice and skills (Stanovich, 2003; Grandy and Duschl, 2005), but also on



The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement