Research Summary

Students’ Views Concerning Worldview Presuppositions Underpinning Science: Is the World Really Ordered, Uniform, and Comprehensible?

Unspoken Worldview Assumptions of Science and Students

Science Education
2014

Our basic understanding of how the world works and how it can be understood form the foundation for how we absorb and learn new information. For most humans, if new information fits in with our basic worldview, we will more readily accept it, and vice versa. Although many people assume science to be completely rational and without any presuppositions at all, there are, in fact, basic tenets or underlying assumptions that are rarely spoken or examined. These basic tenets are critical for understanding how science works as a method and what it can tell us about the universe. Each student also has basic ideas of how the world works; these ideas are rarely examined and they may or may not correlate with the scientific worldview. These discrepancies could have an effect on students’ understanding and interest in science. This study examined the worldview of high school students, as well as what students perceive as the scientific worldview. The author also explores the consequences of these findings with regard to students’ learning of science.

The author focused on three basic tenets of the scientific worldview: that the universe is ordered, comprehensible, and uniform. That the universe is ordered means that there is some regularity to it; order allows us, for example, to expect that if something drops, it will go toward the ground (not in some random chaotic direction). A comprehensible universe means humans can understand something about the order of the universe; e.g., the theory of gravity helps us comprehend why the dropping object goes toward the ground. Related to this comprehensibility is the notion of methodological reductionism, meaning the best way to understand something is by examining each phenomenon separately. One example would be to study the nature of gravity acting on the falling object separately from the chemical composition of the falling object. Finally, that the universe is uniform means there is basic uniformity in the order of things throughout space and time. Uniformity allows us to assume that the theory of gravity is as relevant on Earth as it on Mars or on a faraway planet, and as relevant today as it was 1,000 years ago. These basic worldview propositions of science do not mean that every single scientist has the same view, or that these propositions should never be questioned. Rather, they are basic underlying assumptions that are shared by most scientists.

For this study, the author interviewed 26 students in their last year of high school in Sweden (approximately 19 years old). The author asked two basic questions: (1) What views do students themselves have concerning the order, comprehensibility, and uniformity of the universe? and (2) What views concerning the order, comprehensibility, and uniformity of the universe do students associate with science?

To ascertain students’ responses to these questions during the semi-structured interviews, the author asked the students to sort and comment on five cards, each containing a different statement. The five statements were:
• “There are patterns/order in the universe that wholly or partially can be discovered and understood by humans.”
• “The universe is incomprehensible for humans.”
• “If you want to understand the whole universe, the best way is to try to understand every phenomenon separately.”
• “The physical laws that are valid here are also valid in every other place in the universe.”
• “The physical laws have always been valid; that is, they were valid also a long way back in the history of the universe.”

For each card, the author asked the students to sort the cards into piles according to whether they agree, disagree, or do not know; concurrently, the author asked the students to explain why. Then, the students were asked to sort the card again as either supported by science, contradicted by science, or neither supported nor contradicted by science. Again, the students were asked to explain their decision to sort the card the way they did. The interviews were recorded and transcribed. The transcripts were translated from Swedish to English for the purposes of this article.

The results showed most of the students agreed the universe is ordered in some way, and this order can be, at least partially, discovered by humans. Many of the students emphasized, however, that it is not possible to understand everything about the universe. This was exemplified in their response to the statement, “The universe is incomprehensible for humans.” Almost all of the students said their own view was that the universe is, indeed, incomprehensible. Surprisingly, almost all of the students stated that science holds the opposite view to their own, viewing the universe as comprehensible. In other words, the students felt that science is based on the idea that the world is much more comprehensible than they, themselves, believe.

With regard to methodological reductionism—the concept that the best way to understand the whole is to examine all the parts and the interactions between them—about half of the students said they did not think this was the best approach for understanding the universe. On the other hand, almost all of the students understood methodological reductionism to be the approach of science, thus highlighting another discrepancy between their own views and those of science.

With regard to uniformity of laws over space, many students believed this was not the case. Many felt that the physical laws are different on Earth than they are on another planet, which is a misunderstanding. They also associated this view with science. Most of the students did agree that laws are valid throughout time, and have always been valid, and that this was also the view of science (which is correct).

In summary, the results of this study highlighted major discrepancies between students’ own worldview, the worldview they perceive science to hold, and that which is actually held by the majority of scientists. This study highlights the importance of addressing these underlying presuppositions directly in teaching. Raising these questions could prompt valuable discussion and inquiry. In addition, understanding these important concepts could help students feel more resonant with the scientific worldview, and also expand their understanding of the universe.

The Bottom Line

Science is based on several presuppositions, such as that the universe contains order, the universe is comprehensible, and scientific laws are uniformly valid over space and time. These presuppositions are often taken for granted and rarely directly discussed. In many cases, students do not understand these presuppositions; if they do understand them, however, they can feel that this is in conflict with their own worldview. Uncovering and discussing these underlying assumptions of science in teaching could enhance students’ interest in and acceptance of scientific ideas as well as broaden their understanding of the universe. This can be done explicitly or incorporated into existing teaching material, such as, for example, when discussing how water freezes, educators can discuss whether it is true that water would freeze the same way anywhere in the universe and at any time in the history of the universe.