Understanding the nature of scientific language : how four college students view evolution
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Despite the wide-spread acceptance of evolution within the science community, much of the public still holds reservations about evolution as a valid scientific explanation. This is due in part to questions regarding the very nature of a theory, which has been cited by many researchers as an obstacle to accepting evolution. The specific use of semi-structured interviews and research into how students view other nature of science terminology (fact, hypothesis, and law) in relation to theory may provide further insight into how use of the terms can frame attitudes towards evolution. This study qualitatively describes how four college-aged students (science, philosophy, education, and business) interpret basic science terminology and compare scientific explanations in their assessment of evolution. While discussing the terms, students were encouraged to raise other issues that aided them in the construction of their epistemological beliefs about science. The aim was to provide interviewees with the opportunity to speak openly about what they understood regarding nature of science and evolution rather than presuming a shared coherence in the use of the terms. The semi-structured interview format revealed students’ conceptions (or misconceptions) of the nature of science, relative degrees of certainty for the terms, and underlying biases. The results suggest the specific use of interviews can provide a credible and informative account of how students use basic science terminology. A mixed use of the terms can still lead to a favorable disposition towards evolution when students possess a positive attitude towards science, acknowledge the tentative nature of science as a strength rather than a limitation, and practice reflective reasoning. Conclusions made in the study also suggest that an explicit discussion about fact, theory, law, and hypothesis in the science classroom may actually play less of a critical role than previously thought in opening the door to learning content of which many people consider to be controversial. More concentration should be placed on how knowledge is generated and how to reflectively approach a scientific problem.