Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale

Friday, July 28, 2017

Scientific Cognition: Implications for Learning Science

Scientific cognition (thinking) involves complex cognitive mechanisms.  Scientific Cognition involves much  more than: gen. scientific knowledge, procedural skills to conduct research, attaching "science says" to your statements, a science degree, perpetuating views of popularizers of science, identifying yourself as evidence based, asking for evidence, being skeptical, etc.  Scientific thinking involves an array of components and can be used in everyday out of the lab thinking as well as when evaluating research and examining science texts.

Deanna Kuhn asserts that the essence of scientific thinking is coordinating belief with evidence (2001).  At the very least scientific cognition involves philosophy of science, scientific methodology, quantitative reasoning, probabilistic reasoning and elements of logic. Scientific cognition requires specific cognitive abilities and cognitive style (thinking disposition).

In a recent study we investigated whether or not scientific cognition and scientific literacy (general scientific knowledge) scores were associated, and whether or not there were gender differences for total scores for each scale (Hale, Sloss, & Lawson, Paper Forthcoming).  The scientific literacy and scientific cognition assessment consisted of mostly questions  derived from measuring devices used in the past. The assessments were administered as part of an online survey. The participants were 202 university students. The study was approved by the university's Institutional Review Board. The results indicate a positive association between scientific literacy and scientific cognition, and no gender differences for total scores from the scales. Additional analyses indicate there was gender differences for some of the items. There was gender differences for one item from the scientific literacy assessment and for two items from the scientific cognition assessment. One of the important findings that was found in the study was that students confused science with pseudo- science. The overwhelming majority of students (79%) in the study report that astrology is scientific, or is at least partly scientific. Only twenty one percent of participants in the study answered the following question correctly: "Which of the following statements are true? A) Astrology is not at all scientific B) Astrology is partly scientific C) Astrology is a legitimate field of scientific study."  The correct answer is A. The astrology question is an item from the scientific literacy assessment.  Another important finding was, consistent with finding in past studies, students didn't do well on a covariation task.  Knowledge in research methodology should assist students in providing the correct answer for this item. The question most often answered incorrectly, from the scientific cognition assessment,  was a question involving identifying a relationship between treatment and effects, and making use of comparison groups. These skills are taught in research methods courses. The question was presented as "A new medical treatment was designed to treat a serious health problem. Using the information provided below decide whether the treatment was effective: 200 people were given the treatment and improved 75 people were given the treatment and did not improve 50 people were not given the treatment and improved 15 people were not given the treatment and did not improve A) Treatment was effective B) Treatment was not effective." The probability that the treatment is effective is (200/275) .727. The probability that the treatment is not effective is (50/65) .769.  The answer is B.  Approximately 53% of the students answered the question incorrectly.
The cognitive processes underpinning scientific cognition are important and can be extended to various conditions. To reiterate, scientific cognition is about much more that remembering scientific theories, laws and principles.  Scientific cognition is essentially analytical thinking that can be used, and should be used in a wide range of conditions. At the very least in an effort to develop better scientific cognition students should be educated in the areas of the philosophy of science, research methodology, quantitative reasoning (probabilistic reasoning) and logic. These components are involved with scientific thinking. Science educators and the media do a disservice when they promote science and its wide range of relevant concepts as "just" being able to remember scientifically derived information, or promoting science as if it is all about a just having a sense of "wonder."  Being able to recollect scientific facts, being skeptical and having a sense of wonder is important regarding science, but those qualities alone do not ensure high levels of scientific thinking. Myself and colleagues would like to see future research indicating a strong positive association between scientific cognition and scientific literacy.

References available upon request