domain of applicability. A theory may or may not include a mechanism for the effects it describes and predicts.

Another important feature of the example is that it challenges a common perception of scientific revolutions. Einstein’s general theory of relativity was a true scientific revolution, in that it challenged and redefined conceptions of the nature of space and time. However, it did not invalidate all that had gone before; instead, it showed clearly both the limitations of the previous theory and the domain in which the previous theory is valid as an excellent (close) approximation, useful because it is much simpler (both conceptually and mathematically) than the full general theory of relativity.

This is a key understanding: science is subject to development and change, yet well-tested and established theories remain true in their tested domain even when dramatic new ideas or knowledge changes the way one views that domain. Such theories are tentative in domains in which they have not yet been tested, or in which only limited data are available, so that the tests are not yet conclusive but are far from tentative in the domains in which they have repeatedly been tested through their use in new scientific inquiries.


In everyday usage, an argument is an unpleasant situation in which two or more people have differing opinions and become heated in their discussion of this difference. A somewhat different view of the term “argument” comes from the tradition of formal debate, in which contestants are scored on arguments that favor a particular position or point of view or disfavor the opposing one. Argumentation in science has a different and less combative or competitive role than either of these forms (Kuhn, 1991). It is a mode of logical discourse whose goal is to tease out the relationship between ideas and the evidence—for example, to decide what a theory or hypothesis predicts for a given circumstance, or whether a proposed explanation is consistent or not with some new observation. The goal of those engaged in scientific argumentation is a common one: to tease out as much information and understanding from the situation under discussion as possible. Alternative points of view are valued as long as they contribute to this process within the accepted norms of science and logic, but not when they offer alternatives that are viewed as outside those norms. Because the role, mode, and acceptance of argument, in its everyday sense, are cultural variables, it is important to teach skills and acceptable modes of scientific argumentation, and for both teachers and students to learn by experience the difference between this form of discourse and their preconceived notions of what “wins” an argument.

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