Science: The Vast Enterprise

Jamie Hale

Science is broad; it consists of many components and sub-components. Discussions regarding science are sometimes short-circuited by discussing a single component. These types of discussions oversimplify the wide range of science, its development, and implications. A full appreciation of science requires much more than a focus on a singular element. Skepticism is an element of a scientific attitude and is important, but a skeptical attitude alone—without other cognitive skills and knowledge—doesn’t make one a scientific thinker. Science is all about skepticism, so say the popularizers of science. Skepticism is important, but without the knowledge and appropriate skills, this characteristic will not make one a scientific thinker. Science is hard. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not any simpler.”

Science, although fallible, is the great reality detector. Science is a systematic approach to knowledge. Proper use of scientific processes leads to rationalism (basing conclusion on intellect, logic, and evidence). Science is a safeguard against dogmatism (adherence to doctrine over rational and enlightened inquiry or basing conclusion on authority rather than evidence) and provides a better understanding of the world. Scientific processes and methods are unmistakably the most successful processes available for describing, predicting, and explaining phenomena in the observable universe. If an understanding of reality (or at least an approximation of reality) is the objective, science is the road best traveled. Of course, even those that claim there isn’t a reality or those that hold a multiplist view of knowledge (suggesting there’s no right or wrong just different opinions), act as if there is a reality most of the time; they have no choice, as it is required for everyday functioning.

The general scientific approach to knowledge is based on systematic empiricism (Stanovich, 2007). Observation itself is necessary in acquiring scientific knowledge, but unstructured observation of the natural world does not lead to an increased understanding of the world: “Write down every observation you make from the time you get up in the morning to the time you go to bed on a given day. When you finish, you will have a great number of facts, but you will not have a greater understanding of the world” (Stanovich and Stanovich 2003, p. 12).

Scientific Literacy and Scientific Cognition

Discussions involving scientific literacy are ubiquitous. Scientific literacy is conceptualized and operationalized in various ways. Examples used in defining scientific literacy include: understanding science and its applications, knowledge of what counts as science, general scientific knowledge, knowledge of risks and benefits of science, making informed decisions regarding science and technology, etcetera (DeBoer 2000; Brennan 1992). A precise, standard conceptualization of scientific literacy has not been demonstrated since the origin of the concept (DeBoer 2000). In the context of this article, scientific literacy is synonymous with general scientific knowledge. Scientific literacy in this form involves remembering scientific facts, theories, principles, and so on—products of scientific inquiry. This form of literacy is sometimes referred to as a form of derived scientific literacy. Scientific literacy is important, however other science related concepts are just as important. Scientific cognition is not the same as scientific literacy.

Scientific cognition (thinking) involves complex cognitive mechanisms. Scientific cognition involves much more than general scientific knowledge, procedural skills to conduct research, attaching “science says” to your statements, a science degree, perpetuating views of popular science figures, 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. Scientific thinking is broad and should be used in an array of contexts. Deanna Kuhn asserts that the essence of scientific thinking is coordinating belief with evidence (2011). At the very least scientific cognition involves philosophy of science, scientific methodology, quantitative reasoning, probabilistic reasoning, and elements of logic. Various scales have been developed to measure scientific thinking. Kahan developed the Ordinary Science Intelligence Scale (OSI 2.0, Kahan 2014), and Drummond and Fischhoff (2015) developed the Scientific Reasoning Scale (SRS). Drummond and Fischhoff found that scientific reasoning were distinct from measures of scientific literacy, even though there was a positive association to measures of scientific literacy.

Myself and colleagues investigated the association between scientific literacy and scientific cognition, and whether or not there were gender differences for total scores for each scale (Hale, Sloss, and Lawson 2017). 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 sample consisted of 202 university students and the study was approved by the university’s Institutional Review Board. The results indicate a positive association, of moderate strength (r = +.33), between scientific literacy and scientific cognition, and no gender differences for total scores from the scales. An important finding from our study is that students confused science with pseudoscience. The majority of students (79 percent) in the study report that astrology is scientific or is at least partly scientific. Only 21 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. A detailed discussion on the results are beyond the scope here.

Learning Science

The cognitive processes foundational to 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, broadly. 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. Science educators and the media do a disservice when they promote science and its 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. Assessment tools may help predict scientific eminence and be used as screening tools when hiring or considering admissions to college programs. More research needs to be done regarding scientific literacy and scientific cognition. Both of these concepts involve related cognitive mechanisms, and being knowledgeable in these areas will have positive consequences. Society is heavily dependent on science and technology, and these complex endeavors require complex thinking. We would like to see future research indicating a stronger positive association, between scientific cognition and scientific literacy, than the association found in our study; both are important are for understanding the development and comprehensive implications of science.

A sense of skepticism is a great starting point in an effort to better scientific thinking skills. Scientific realism projects a worldview indicating that science reflects reality (approximation of reality, best we can do with our limited sensory structures); reality is a view best seen through the scope of science.


  • Brennan, R.P. 1992. Dictionary of Scientific Literacy. New York, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  • DeBoer, G.E. 2000. Scientific Literacy: Another look at its historical and contemporary meanings and its relationship to science education reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 37, 582–601.
  • Drummond, C., and B. Fischhoff. 2015. Development and Validation of the Scientific Reasoning Scale. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. doi: 10.1002/bdm.1906.
  • Hale, J., G. Sloss, and A. Lawson. 2017. Association Between Scientific Cognition and Scientific Literacy (Brief Review). Knowledge Summit. Retrieved on June. 12, 2018 from
  • Kahan, D. 2016. “Ordinary science intelligence”: A science-comprehension measure for study of risk and science communication, with notes on evolution and climate change. Journal of Risk Research, 1–22,
  • Kuhn, D. 2011. What is scientific thinking and how does it develop? In U. Goswami (Eds.), The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development 2nd Edition, 497–523, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Stanovich, K. 2007. How To Think Straight About Psychology 8th Edition. New York, N.Y.: Pearson.
  • Stanovich, P., and K. Stanovich. 2003. Using Research and Reason in Education: How Teachers Can Use Scientifically Based Research to Make Curricular & Instructional Decisions. National Institute of Literacy.

Jamie Hale

Jamie Hale is a college instructor, and he is associated with Eastern Kentucky University's Cognitive Neuroscience Lab and Perception & Cognition Lab. He has published articles and books on a wide range of topics. Jamie is the director of and author of In Evidence We Trust: The need for science, rationality and statistics. His future articles will address models for improved scientific thinking, popular myths, and rationality in terms of cognitive science.