On the substance of a sophisticated epistemology



Among researchers who study students' epistemologies, a consensus has emerged about what constitutes a sophisticated stance toward scientific knowledge. According to this community consensus, students should understand scientific knowledge as tentative and evolving, rather than certain and unchanging; subjectively tied to scientists' perspectives, rather than objectively inherent in nature; and individually or socially constructed, rather than discovered. Surveys, interview protocols, and other methods used to probe students' beliefs about scientific knowledge broadly reflect this outlook. This article questions the community consensus about epistemological sophistication. We do not suggest that scientific knowledge is objective and fixed; if forced to choose whether knowledge is certain or tentative, with no opportunity to elaborate, we would choose “tentative.” Instead, our critique consists of two lines of argument. First, the literature fails to distinguish between the correctness and productivity of an epistemological belief. For instance, elementary school students who believe that science is about discovering objective truths to questions, such as whether the earth is round or flat, or whether an asteroid led to the extinction of the dinosaurs, may be more likely to succeed in science than students who believe science is about telling stories that vary with one's perspective. Naïve realism, although incorrect (according to a broad consensus of philosophers and social scientists), may nonetheless be productive for helping those students learn. Second, according to the consensus view as reflected in commonly used surveys, epistemological sophistication consists of believing certain blanket generalizations about the nature of knowledge and learning, generalizations that do not attend to context. These generalizations are neither correct nor productive. For example, it would be unsophisticated for students to view as tentative the idea that the earth is round rather than flat. By contrast, they should take a more tentative stance toward theories of mass extinction. Nonetheless, many surveys and interview protocols tally students as sophisticated not for attending to these contextual nuances, but for subscribing broadly to the view that knowledge is tentative. © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Sci Ed85:554–567, 2001.