How history of science informs individual development of scientific reasoning and supports a reflective perspective thereon

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Per Kind, at our October workshop, put forward the idea that informative parallels can be drawn between the development of science-knowledge across chronological time, i.e. the history of science, and the development of scientific reasoning within the individual, across developmental time. This opens up an indirect way of how studying Grosseteste and his time can help us improve science teaching: by analysing the succession of methods and processes that have characterised science across the centuries, maybe we can learn about how scientific reasoning develops across childhood and adolescence and about the factors that drive this development. In this way, the Grosseteste project could make important theoretical contributions to our models of how reasoning skills develop. From these models, we could then infer which specific cognitive caveats need to be tackled at different stages of the learning process, and this would have general implications for how we teach science across different age groups.

There has been a range of conceptualisations that aim to delineate milestones of reasoning practices across the history of science. As Per outlined during his fascinating presentation, one of the most influential accounts has been offered by Crombie (1994), who put forward 6 different styles of scientific thinking. These comprise the mathematical approach, experimental exploration, hypothetical modelling, probability (e.g. Pascal), taxonomy

The Philosopher
The Philosopher

(Aristotle) and the historico-genetic explanation (Darwin). In taking the styles project further, Hacking (2012) points out that although all styles are commonly associated with a legendary figure who was centrally involved in initiating the respective paradigm shift, these shifts have never resulted from the contributions of only a single person. Rather, around these key figures there have been what Fleck (1979) called thought-collectives, i.e. small groups of like-minded people. These then took their ideas further, which entailed a larger uptake of the new way of thinking in the surrounding culture, eventually allowing the new way of thinking to stabilise. This point brings us to one of the central messages in Per’s talk, namely that science has been and is inherently imbedded in the culture within which it is practised. The set of criteria that scientifically reliable claims must fulfil is agreed upon by those that engage in science at the time. As a result, the nature of science cannot be adequately expressed as a list of explicit tenets that can be applied through the ages (Allchin, 2011; Hacking, 2012). Contrary to what the term may suggest, there does not seem to be a universal, ‘eternal’ essence that demarcates what science is. Rather, science presents itself as a constructivist effort that is fundamentally shaped by the culture within which it arises. For the individual who starts to learn about science, this poses the challenge of catching up with the progress made by past generations, which at the same time carries the invaluable advantage of not having to start from scratch; and this is what has brought human understanding forward across the ages.

When looking at the timeline of scientific reasoning styles, it becomes clear that cultural transmission has been the driving force; after all the time frame is far too short to allow genetic evolution to drive these changes. From listening to the modern scientists’ contributions during the workshop, it seems that their engagement with the Grosseteste project has in many ways added to their awareness that they are – often implicitly, but nonetheless so – building on factual and procedural knowledge that has accumulated over very many past generations.

In addition, as an undergraduate I still feel at the very beginning of engaging with science in a more reflective, meta-level way, and I have found it very helpful to gain more of a perspective on what the principles are that modern science abides by, and how they have gained their status. Before learning about the Grosseteste project, I had taken for granted that the way we find out about natural phenomena is by ‘hypothetical/mathematical modelling’ and ‘experimental exploration’. The realisation that this commonly agreed-upon procedure has originated in many no

n-linear ways from centuries of curious and sophisticated engagement with what the world is like makes me much more aware of and appreciative about the scientific method that we are taught in our course. Through the engagement with medieval I feel I gained a much broader and richer perspective of whose shoulders I’m standing on as a modern-day science student.

Beyond this, the awareness that our scientific method is culturally constructed rather than correct in some absolute way can only lead to a healthy, critical attitude towards what it is that scientists (try to) do. On the part of those that conduct scientific research nowadays, this awareness induces a feeling of responsibility to actively partake in shaping the commonly agreed-upon methods and procedures to be as truth-conducive as possible.  I have been very lucky to get the opportunity to think about these things, and I hope that by bringing the Grosseteste project into education, many more students – both at school- and university-level – will get the chance to do so.

Ulrike

References

Allchin, D. (2011). Evaluating Knowledge of the Nature of (Whole) Science. Science Studies and Science Education, Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com).

Crombie, A. C. (1994). Styles of scientific thinking in the European tradition: The history of argument and explanation especially in the mathematical and biomedical sciences and arts (Vol. 3). London: Duckworth.

Hacking, I. (2012). ‘Language, Truth and Reason’ 30 years later. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 43, 599–609.

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