EJSE V1 N3 - Cobern: Distinguishing Science-Related Variations in the Causal Universal of College Students' Worldviews
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Distinguishing Science-Related Variations in the Causal Universal of College Students' Worldviews
William W. Cobern, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Science Education
Education and Professional Development
Western Michigan University
2112 Sangren Hall
Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5192
Voice: +616.387.2255
FAX: +616.387.2882
Internet: bill.cobern@wmich.edu
         (Scientific Literacy and Cultural Studies Project)


An investigation derived from the logico-structural theory of worldview was conducted for the purpose of examining the relationship between science interest and variations in the Causal universal within college students' worldviews. This required the development of a special pen-and-paper instrument for detecting worldview variations in the Causal universal. The instrument was based on the assumption that when a student is faced with an unfamiliar phenomenon, he or she is more likely to accept an explanation that is more consistent with his or her worldview than an explanation of the phenomenon that is less consistent. The test involved making a choice between explanations that were scientifically-more and scientifically-less compatible. The test along with a measure of science interest was given to a 120 first year college students. The test alone was given to a group of professional scientists. The results suggested that there was considerable worldview  variation among the students and that students who favored scientifically-more compatible explanations showed higher levels of science interest. It was also found, however, that even the students with science interest were less likely to choose a scientifically-more compatible explanation than were the professional scientists. It was concluded that the investigation lends corroboration to the logico-structural theory of worldview and provides a further rationale for pursuit of research in this area.


        There is a long worthy tradition of worldview studies among anthropologists and of recently a growing interest among science education researchers (e.g., Allen, 1995; Lassiter, 1993; Lawrenz & Gray, 1995; Ogunniyi et al., 1995). Traditionally worldview researchers have attempted to identify and compare worldviews by locating within a worldview a single theme considered representative of the worldview (e.g., Pepper, 1942). Although very interesting, the thematic approach leads to oversimplification and thus has not precipitated the research one would expect from a good theory (Jones, 1972). In 1984 the cultural anthropologist Michael Kearney published a theoretical book in which he presented his logico-structural model of world view. Subsequently this model was adapted for research purposes in science education by Cobern (1991). The sensitivity and richness of the logico-structural model stands in marked contrast to the earlier thematic approaches to worldview research. The logico-structural model is a multifaceted representation of worldview thus allowing rational justification for the expectation of intra-worldview variation in the typical school classroom, quite opposite of what one would expect working under a thematic worldview framework (e.g., Proper, Wideen & Ivany, 1988). Of course such an assertion about intra-worldview variation raises the question of empirical evidence. And if the evidence is forthcoming the question then becomes, do these variations actually exert a significant influence on (say ) science attitude as predicted by the theory? The purpose of the study reported on here was, first, to test for the existence of theory-predicted intra-worldview variation and, second, to examine the relationship between worldview variation and science interest.

Theoretical Framework
        Worldview refers to the culturally-dependent, generally subconscious, fundamental organization of the mind. This organization manifests itself as a set of presuppositions or assumptions which predispose one to feel, think, and act in predictable patterns. Kearney (1984, p. 1) refers to worldview as, "culturally organized macrothought: those dynamically inter-related basic assumptions of a people that determine much of their behavior and decision making, as well as organizing much of their body of symbolic creations ... and ethnophilosophy in general." To be rational means to think and act with reason, or in other words to have an explanation or justification for thought and action. Such explanations and justifications ultimately rest upon one's world view, one's presuppositions about the world. Or in other words, a worldview inclines one to a particular way of thinking. According to Kearney (1984, p. 41) a worldview "consists o f basic assumptions and images that provide a more or less coherent, though not necessarily accurate, way of thinking about the world." Specifically, a worldview defines the Self. It sets the boundaries of who and what I am. It also defines everything that is not me, including my relationships to the human and non-human environments. It shapes my view of the universe, my conception of time and of space. It influences my norms and values.

        Experience is useless unless interpreted. Therefore, beginning in childhood, each person interacts with his or her physical and social environment, and through this myriad of environmental interactions, worldview presuppositions are unconsciously constructed. The process occurs over a long period of time, with the formative, childhood years being of most importance. Through the years of schooling, formal education contributes to worldview development; and in turn, a worldview provides a foundation upon which cognitive frameworks are built during the learning process.

        At some point of maturity (e.g., as an adult) the malleability of a worldview begins to decrease. It becomes resilient in the face of change providing an adult with cognitive stability; and yet a worldview has an adaptive function which allows even adults to adjust to new environments. Thus, while worldview presuppositions are strongly held, they are not immutable. The strength with which a mature worldview is held appears to be inversely related to the degree of heterogeneity in a culture. The more heterogeneity, the less strongly a worldview is apt to be held. This process of worldview development and change is what Kearney (1984, p. 3) calls "dialectical constructionism" and it shares much with Piaget's genetic epistemology (1971) as well as with Ausubel's constructionist theory of learning (Ausubel, Novak & Hanesian, 1978). In human mental architecture, worldview is the foundation upon which cognitive and perceptual frameworks are built.

        Kearney notes that the general paradigm used by American anthropologists doing worldview research has been that of theme. The same has been true of science education researchers who have employed the theoretical work of Pepper (1942). The mono-thematic or configurationalist approach is an

"attempt to discover and describe the underlying pattern, configuration, basic personality, ethos, or world view of a society. What all of these concepts have in common is that they refer to an hypothesized mental principle that organizes in a distinctive way nonmaterial elements...of a given society. These mental constructs are assumed to shape social and cultural behavior and the material and nonmaterial results of this behavior." (Kearney, 1984, p. 23)

The difficulty with this approach is that it greatly over-simplifies and thus distorts the concept of world view. For example, using the Pepper scheme some have concluded that Westerners tend to have a mechanistic world view. The tendency may well be factual, but to call the Western worldview mechanistic is to gloss over significant aspects of Westerners that are decidedly non-mechanistic. A similar problem is encountered when one speaks of a scientific worldview (e.g., AAAS, 1993). Most who advocate the development of a scientific worldview as an important goal in science education are essentially advocating a philosophy of scientism (Duschl, 1988). To advocate that all of experience should be interpreted by 20th Century scientific methods and theories is surely to advocate an impoverished view of the world, devoid of aesthetics and theology. What is more, scientism does not fit with reality. Scientism is an monolithic philosophy that glosses over substantial differences among today's scientists, such as the differences between B. F. Skinner and Fritjof Capra, or Owen Gingerich and Carl Sagan. It would be more reasonable to abandon the monothematics, and to instead ask, What aspects of a worldview are relevant to science? Thus, it is more appropriate to speak of scientifically-more and scientifically-less compatible worldviews.

The Logico-Structural model of World View
        In contrast to the thematic approach, Kearney's logico-structural model begins with the idea that a worldview is an organized set of fundamental, cognitive presuppositions about reality. He assumes that this organization is shaped by the,

"internal equilibrium dynamics among [the worldview assumptions]. This means that some of these assumptions and resultant ideas, beliefs, and actions predicated on them are logically and structurally more compatible than others, and that the entire worldview will `strive' toward maximum logical and structural consistency. The second and main force giving coherence and shape to a worldview is the necessity of having to relate to the external environment." (Kearney, 1984, p. 52)

In other words, a worldview tends to be internally consistent, in that presuppositions are logically integrated and universals are structurally integrated; hence, the model is termed logico-structural. A worldview is externally valid in that the human need to relate to the external environment fosters coherence.

        Kearney suggests that all worldviews are a structural composite of seven, basic cognitive categories or universals: Self, NonSelf, Relationship, Classification, Causality, Space, and Time (for a complete discussion of these categories see Cobern, 1991 and Kearney, 1984). These universals he likens to the diagnostic categories used by physicians. "Although the doctor is confronted with a variety of patients, he can presumably describe the most significant medical facts about them in terms of...features common to all patients, e.g., blood pressure, pulse, respiration" (Kearney, 1984, p. 65). In principle groups of people and even individuals can be identified by worldview variations which result from the content variation in worldview universals. Logically consistent presuppositions about reality are the content. Each universal is composed of a hierarchically arranged set (or sets) of assumptions, or presuppositions, at the end o f which is a final absolute presupposition or first order presupposition, an ultimate presupposition beyond which there are no others. One might think of a 1st order presupposition as akin to Aristotle's final cause. At the opposite end, these hierarchies blend into the cognitive frameworks with which educators are more familiar.

        In constructivist theory cognitive frameworks are a crucial factor in the assimilation of new knowledge (Tobin, 1993) and in forming attitudes and interests. It follows then that worldview as the foundation for cognition and perception has a significant influence on learning and attitude development. Where students are of diverse cultural backgrounds there is a prima facie case for considering worldview as a factor in the processes of education. However the logico-structural theory of worldview suggests that even in situations usually considered culturally uniform there is likely to be some worldview variation precisely because worldview is a composite of seven universals. In other words, in any given educational setting many presuppositions within these seven universals will be shared by most students; however, there will likely exist some presuppositions shared by only a few. This intra-worldview variation is potentially of significant influence in science achievement and attitude development.

Limitations and Hypotheses
        In order for one to test for a relationship between intra-worldview variation and science interest the investigator must have some knowledge of how the presuppositions and attributes in various universals correspond to the nature of science. The investigator, in other words, must have some knowledge of what constitutes a scientifically compatible worldview. The status of worldview research unfortunately is not such that reliable information is available for all seven universals. However, it is generally agreed that a scientific explanation must meet certain criteria, therefore the focus of this investigation was limited to the Causal universal. The research questions are modified accordingly. Is there evidence for worldview variation within the Causal universal among culturally uniform college students? If so, is this variation in the Causal universal significantly related to interest in science?

        This paper thus reports on the development of the Test of Preferred Explanations (TOPE) which was designed to test these questions, i.e., for distinguishing science related variations in the Causal universal of college students' worldviews. Collected data was used in testing three null hypotheses:

    • There is no significant difference between the TOPE scores of scientists and the TOPE scores of students with high science interest.
    • There is no significant difference between the TOPE scores of scientists and the TOPE scores of students with low science interest.
    • There is no significant difference between the TOPE scores of students with high science interest and the TOPE scores of students with low science interest.
Instrument Development

        Undoubtedly, there are many ways one could use to distinguish worldview variations among students. For qualitative approaches see Cobern et al. (1995). In this investigation the approach was to develop a paper-and-pen instrument that could be given to a large number of students in a short period of time. The instrument is intended to be a preliminary discriminating device used prior to more incisive, investigative techniques, probably techniques of the ethnographic type, perhaps using an Interview Vee (Ault, Novak & Gowin, 1984). The content of the instrument derives from the contention that a scientifically compatible worldview must include presuppositions in the Causal universal that are appropriate to scientific explanation.

        The primary problematic feature of any instrument designed to discriminate among students according to worldview variations is that the instrument itself must not be a test of scientific knowledge. As explained in earlier work on worldview theory in science education research (Cobern, 1991), being ignorant of scientific concepts does not necessarily indicate a worldview variation. With regard to distinguishing variations in the Causal universal, this can be avoided by making the following assumption:

When a student is faced with an unfamiliar phenomenon, he or she is more likely to accept an explanation that is more consistent with his or her worldview than an explanation of the phenomenon that is less consistent.

If one presents a student with an unfamiliar phenomenon and two explanations, one cast in a scientific style and the other not, one would expect students with scientifically compatible worldviews to choose the first explanation more frequently than students with variant worldviews. This suggests that an effective instrument could be constructed with unfamiliar phenomena as items.

        The construction of TOPE began with the identification of unfamiliar phenomena to be used in the items. Unfortunately, one can never be sure who is familiar with what. An alternative procedure that avoids this problem is to create descriptions of fictitious or quasi-fictitious phenomena. For the current study 28 such descriptions were created. The original instrument used these plus three more descriptions based on factual, but obscure phenomena. The test instructions indicated that the items did not necessarily contain factual information, and therefore the test was not a test of knowledge.

        The investigator assumed that presuppositions amenable to scientific explanation are present in a student's worldview if a student frequently chooses explanations that are scientifically compatible. Thus a scientifically compatible explanation was needed for each item. Obviously the explanations for the fictitious phenomena would be fictitious. The explanations for the obscure phenomena items also needed to be fictitious in order to avoid confounding affects of students who might happen to be knowledgeable about the obscure phenomena. The criteria for designing a fictitious, but scientifically compatible explanation came primarily from Braithwaite's book Scientific Explanations and to a lesser extent Aicken's The Nature of Science. It is important to note that (especially) Braithwaite's positivist view of scientific explanation is not unproblematic. His view nonetheless represents the view of many scientists and is a view prominent in science education (Smolicz & Nunan, 1975).

        According to Braithwaite, an explanation and hypothesis are virtually the same thing. To be acceptable in science they must be empirical and above all, testable. A scientific explanation or hypothesis always involves natural causes and tends to be mechanistic and reductionistic. Thus the scientifically-more compatible explanations were designed to be:

  • natural
  • rational
  • mechanistic/reductionistic/hypothetical/deductive
  • experimental
  • epistemologically dynamic/tentative.
Any scientific explanation is also a part of a theoretical structure or system composed of many explanations, generally on different levels of explanatory power. Scientific explanations are not given in isolation (Martin, 1972), however with the exception of one TOPE item that relates experimentation to theory, all of the items contain ad hoc explanations. The notion that explanations should be related to other explanations in an explanatory system is not unique to scientific thinking however, and thus was not included as a criterion for the items in this instrument.

        The foil in each item was a rational explanation designed to be scientifically-less compatible or simply scientifically unacceptable. The criteria for composing such explanations were basically the opposite of the criteria for designing the scientifically-more compatible explanations. An attempt was made to write rational explanations that were holistic rather than reductionistic, plausible though non-testable. The 31 items in the original instrument were primarily written by the investigator. Two physicists and a mathematician offered expert advice for revising items and suggestions for original items. The adjectives scientifically-more and scientifically-less were chosen with purpose. None of the explanations is scientifically compatible because all are fabrications. However, it can be argued that when the explanations are considered hypothetically some are more compatible with science than others.

The Selection of Items
        Having compiled and edited 31 items, the next step was to test their discriminating power. This was done by giving the instrument to participants identified as having a strong or weak scientifically-oriented world view, and retaining only the items that discriminated between the two groups. Scientists and engineers comprised the former group. The group identified as having a weak, scientifically oriented worldview was comprised primarily of non-science students at the University of Sokoto, Nigeria. This identification was deemed sound because these were students raised in a non-scientific, non-technological society who at the university level still had professed little interest in science and had no recent science instruction. The second group also included female secretaries at two American colleges who professed little science interest and who had no recent science instruction. The demographics of this group were such tha t one would expect them to have much less of a scientific orientation than a group of scientists (Vetter & Babco, 1987).

        The test was constructed in three, 31-item formats. In Format A, each item contains a phenomenon description followed by two explanations of opposing style. In Format B each phenomenon description is followed by one explanation randomly chosen to be scientifically-more or less compatible. Format C is identical to Format B except that each item has the opposite explanation. Each item in Formats B and C ends with a five-point scale (1 to 5) of acceptability, where a five indicates a high degree of acceptability.

        The instructions to participants called the instrument a survey, rather than a test, and indicated that the instrument did not call for technically correct responses. At no point was any indication given that this instrument was a part of research in science education. In Format A, the subjects were to choose the one explanation of the two that they found more acceptable. Though the instructions discouraged the use of it, there was also an undecided response. In Formats B and C, participants were to indicate on the scale how acceptable they found the single explanation. Format A was scored by giving one point for each scientifically-more compatible explanation chosen, a half point for an undecided response, and a zero for each scientifically-less compatible explanation chosen. The same basic scoring scheme was used with Formats B and C. On the response scale, four's and five's were scored as one, three as a half point, and one's and two's as a zero.

        An a priori selection criteria for inclusion of an item in the final instrument was set at a 0.4 minimum percentage difference between the science and non-science groups. For example, if on an item 80 percent of the science professors chose the scientifically-more compatible explanation but only 40 percent of the second group chose this explanation, then the item was retained. The decision to use a 0.4 difference was based on Hopkins and Stanley's (1981) discussion of item discriminating power.

        Following this guideline, the initial analysis of the data led to the retention of 14 items. Four other items were very close to the 0.4 difference. Subsequently, these four items were given to a professional scientist who had not participated in the initial study. Based on his comments one of the four items was dropped as too confusing, and the other three were retained after modification to better fit the scientific model of explanation. The final instrument (TOPE) contained seventeen items. Fifteen of these came from Format A, and two from Formats B and C. The Appendix contains the complete instrument (also see Cobern, 1988).

        The process of establishing item validity was concurrent with item development and selection. To be explicit, validity in the study was approached first as a matter of content. The items were judged to have content validity because they were based on the work of experts, i.e., Braithwaite and Aicken. Furthermore, content validity was affirmed by having the items reviewed by a panel of scientists and science educators. In their opinion the items contained accurate examples of scientifically-more and scientifically-less acceptable explanations. Construct validity was affirmed by choosing only those items that discriminated between known groups.

Research Method and Results

        The investigation was conducted with college freshmen instead of younger students both as a matter of logistical convenience, and to minimize confounding factors such as reading ability. In the fall of 1987, 120 first year students at a southern liberal arts college completed TOPE. These students were enrolled in a required first year, general education course and represented just under half of the first year class. As an indicator of science interest the students were asked to examine a list of college disciplines and check the one or two disciplines that most interested them as possible majors, and the one or two of least interest. The two questions were combined and scored as 1 for any science area being checked on the first list but not the second, 0.5 for science not being checked on either list, or 0 for science being checked on the second list but not the first. The students were thus divided into three groups: those with explicitly stated science interest, those with no inidcation of science interest (interpreted as some interest in science), and those who explicitly state no science interest.

        Copies of TOPE were also sent to 200 scientists randomly selected from a directory of American scientists. Of these 88 usable, completed tests were returned (44%). The theory predicted that the mean TOPE scores of the student groups and of the professional scientists would be significantly different, and that TOPE scores would increase with interest. The null hypotheses were tested using a one-way ANOVA procedure and T-tests between cell means (Walonick, 1986). The p value for rejection was set at 0.01. The results are given in Tables 1, 2, and 3.


Discussion of Results

        Based on the student scores, the test-retest reliability was calculated to be 0.81 (a small random sample of students agreed to re take the test three weeks later). The three null hypotheses were rejected at p =< 0.01. The expected order of results was confirmed. The mean score for professional scientists was highest followed by the mean score of students with high science interest. The students with low science interest had the lowest mean score on TOPE. Given the cursory gauge of science interest the positive results are encouraging. One would expect to find even greater differences with science interest measured by a more sophisticated instrument.

        The group mean for scientists is lower than what the researcher expected. One factor to consider is that the scientists in the study were largely from four-year liberal arts colleges. Working in more interdisciplinary environments and with less emphasis on research, many could be more open to different explanation styles than (say) scientists at research universities. Another possibility is that the lower than anticipated scores indicate a lack of instrument sensitivity. Redoing the study using a group of research scientists at research universities would help to answer the question. It must be remembered however that the theory does not demand that scientists always choose scientifically compatible explanations. The Causal universal is influenced by the presuppositions that form the other universals, particularly those in Classification and the NonSelf. In other words, even scientists are likely to have more than one notion of causality.


        The objectives of the investigation were achieved. The very fact that TOPE was successfully developed based on differences among people corroborates the worldview theory inference of worldview variation. Secondly, the analysis of TOPE scores by science interest among students and by the comparison of student TOPE scores with the TOPE scores of professional scientists corroborates the inference that worldview variation can significantly influence science interest. The results raise interesting questions specifically about origin and direction of effect. The results indicate that students who dislike science tend to prefer nonscientific explanation styles and vice versa. Given the dialectical constructivist approach to worldview development one would want to investigate family, socio-cultural, and educational factors that give rise to these preferences. Furthermore, one is prompted to ask whether our conception of science and method of teaching science is too inflexible to attract the interest of students who have very different ways of understanding the world around them. Thus, the investigation both lends corroboration to the logico-structural theory of worldview and provides further research questions.

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            Reports from a recent space flight indicate a new material has been identified in outer space. Although insensitive to the presence of ordinary matter, when approached by a human being it glows brightly in a variety of colors.

    It has long been suspected from other evidence that human beings give rise to psychic emanations, but the main difficulty has always been the development of a suitable detector for this influence. This new material appears to be an ideal detector for it is sensitive to human proximity as well as operating over a wide range of personality types.

    How acceptable is this explanation to you? Select the appropriate rank below:

    1. Completely acceptable with NO objections or reservations.
    2. Very acceptable with FEW objections or reservations.
    3. Acceptable BUT with SOME objections or reservations.
    4. Somewhat acceptable BUT with SEVERAL objections or reservations.
    5. NOT acceptable.



            Recently astronomers have observed an increase in radio wave activity of particular frequency from a particular sector in the sky. This observation has caused a stir and a great deal of speculation as to its explanations. So far there are two explanations that the astronomers are arguing most about:

    Man has often doubted that he was alone in this vast universe. These radio waves might well be radio signals from some far civilization upon which we have stumbled or indeed they may even be meant for us.

    How acceptable is this explanation to you? Select the appropriate rank below:

    1. Completely acceptable with NO objections or reservations.
    2. Very acceptable with FEW objections or reservations.
    3. Acceptable BUT with SOME objections or reservations.
    4. Somewhat acceptable BUT with SEVERAL objections or reservations.
    5. NOT acceptable.


            Some people were observing a demonstration that involved a miniature red train car, a bit of track, and a tunnel. When the demonstrator pushed the train car into the tunnel a blue car came out the opposite side. When the blue car was pushed back into the tunnel the red car reappeared out the other side. People suspected that there were really two cars, originally the blue one being hidden by the tunnel.

            To test this idea they listened carefully when the red car was pushed into the tunnel feeling sure that they would hear it knocking the blue car out the opposite side. Try as they might, they could hear no sound of a collision. The people then fell into two groups over the matter:

    1. Some people found the demonstration intriguing and amusing. They considered the demonstrator to be a kind of magician who was proving that the hand really is quicker than the eye.
    1. Other people recalled that like-poles of magnets repel each other. So perhaps there were two cars each with a magnet. Like poles faced each other so that one car entering the tunnel drove the other out without ever touching.
    Which explanation would you be more willing to accept?

    If you absolutely have no preference for one over the other, mark "?".


            There once was a woman who to put it mildly drank a great deal. Every day after work she would begin going from bar to bar until late in the night. Hardly a day would pass that she did not end in a state of intoxication. People said that this was not even the worst of her moral degeneracy, but that she was as well a cruel and spiteful woman. She seemed to delight in unkindness. One morning she did not come to work and later it was learned that she died the night before of a heart attack. Her colleagues at work spent much time that day discussing her fate.

    A.        As the doctors said she died of a heart attack. She undoubtedly put too much physical strain on her system and her heart finally gave way.

    B.        She was a young woman who should have had many years ahead of her. She was however decadent and mean, and an untimely death was the consequence.

    Which of the above explanations would you be more willing to accept?

    If you absolutely have no preference for one over the other, mark "?".


            Occasionally when entering a room for the first time one gets the distinct impression that he has been there before. This impression can be very strong and disturbing, and all the more because one is sure that he has not ever seen the room before. There seems to be two reasonable explanations for this phenomenon:

    A.        This is an example of deja vu which is something almost all of us experience from time to time. It is remembering a place you had never been to before or an object or person you have never seen before. This phenomenon is a reminder of the vast complexity of the human mind, a complexity of which we understand very little. What we understand least is the capacity of the mind to perceive things outside the range of our basic physical senses.

    B.        The human brain is a complex electro-chemical computer. Although for the most part it functions faultlessly there are occasional lapses. The above is such a case. After the first glimpse of the room there is an instantaneous functional lapse and recovery. The lapse causes the initial glimpse to be separated from the current perception of the room. The result is that the initial glimpse becomes like a memory. One is deceived into thinking that he has seen the room before.

    Which explanation would you be more willing to accept?

    If you absolutely have no preference for one over the other, mark "?".


            Two men became tired of working for their living so they decided to rob a bank to make themselves rich. They took guns, went to a local bank and demanded all the money. An alert policeman saw what was happening and intervened. The robbers fearing capture fired their guns. In the confusion they managed to escape in a stolen car leaving behind several injured and dying people. By this time the robbers were panic stricken and raced down the road at a very high speed. On a curve the driver lost control of the car and both of them died in a ghastly accident. Amongst the people who read about this incident in the newspapers there seemed to be two feelings about why these robbers died:

    A.        Why did these men die? We may be glad that they did die being so evil. The "how" however is more simple. Their evil deed was poorly planned. Had they carefully thought it all out ahead of time they either would have abandoned the idea or would have developed a much less reckless plan.

    B.        Sometimes we look around and see the evil that people get away with, and we think to ourselves, "There is no justice." But often there is justice and here is a good example. These men willfully decided to do evil. Why did these two die? It was the just price of their evil.

    Which explanation do you find more acceptable?

    If you absolutely have no preference for one over the other, mark "?".


            In the past when a man's heart stopped beating he was declared dead. Now medical doctors have the technology to restart a man's heart if they act quickly enough and thus to bring him back to life. A curious result of this is that we are now receiving interesting reports from these patients who have "died" but have been saved by this new technology. These reports are about the experiences these people have had during the minutes when their hearts were not beating. They claim that during that time they experienced the afterlife, that is the life that many people believe to be waiting for a person after he dies.

    There have been two reactions to these claims:

    A.        The dreams of a sleeping man are due to various electro-chemical processes in the brain. When a man's heart stops beating these brain processes do not immediately stop as well. His mind may still be dreaming since it takes time for this electro-chemical activity to cease. If the doctors are able to revive a man's heart, then when he regains consciousness what he remembers are only dreams like any other.

    B.        We may say that a man has died when his heart stops beating. What we really should say is that his body has died. The spirit of the man still lives just as the philosophers have so often taught. The reports from these people who have died and then been revived give us the first empirical evidence that the spirit of a man does not die with his body.

    Which explanation would you be more willing to accept?

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            In many areas of the world today the health of the people is looked after by traditional and herbal medicine practitioners. These traditional physicians practice a healing art based on generations of accumulated knowledge. In spite of this, the modern study of medicine does not include any areas of this traditional knowledge. Recently doctors concerned about this issue have divided into pro and con groups:

    A.        The study of modern medicine is the study of western medicine. This should tip us off to the real reason behind the resistance to the scientific study of traditional herbal medicine. It is pure and simply western chauvinism. From the scientific point of view there is no reason for not carefully researching well-documented traditional cures. The findings would benefit all of mankind; and in addition there would be a greater appreciation of the traditions of non-western peoples.

    B.        Modern experimental medicine has been successful largely because it is directed by rational theory. The theoretical structure of a science tells the investigator which avenues of experiments are most likely to be profitable, thus avoiding many deadends. Since there is no such structure in traditional medicine a researcher would be left to follow dozens, even hundreds of nebulous accounts of "cures that work." Such ad hoc experimenting is wasteful and inefficient. It is for this same reason that "home cures" that so many families use are not pursued by researchers.

    Which position would you be more willing to accept?

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            A startling discovery has recently been made amongst a pre-modern group of people in a remote region of the Amazon Basin. An anthropologist living with these people for a year noted that the council of elders had a perfect record on predicting rainy days. Out of 365 days there were 109 days on which rain began to fall. All of these days were correctly predicted two to four days in advance. For the same period of time the government meteorological forecasts were much less accurate. The elders based their predictions upon the pattern made by dried chicken bones which they would cast a specific number of times each day. The scientist was impressed with the accuracy but skeptical that the bones had much to do with it. He got the elders to cooperate in a number of experiments by which he hoped to determine the real nature of their predictions. None of his hypotheses were confirmed, all were rejected. In the end he was convinced that the predictions must indeed rest upon the chicken bones. Later the anthropologist reported his findings at the symposium; and although his peers agreed with his conclusions they disagreed in their reasons:

    A.        Pre-modern people although pre-modern are still clever. They skillfully put to use the collective observations and knowledge of their ancestors, as in this case. Modern people are surprised by their achievements only because they think of the pre-modern man as naive and unintelligent.

    B.        First of all the anthropologist's studies were rationally designed and carefully conducted. Secondly, his findings are corroborated by the work of other anthropologists amongst other types of people. Thirdly, chemists have recently found that dry bones absorb moisture from the air and that the amount of "bounciness" in the bone depends on how much moisture has been absorbed.

    Which side do you find more acceptable?

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    SOPE ITEM 10

            Pea seeds when passed through a magnetic field germinate faster than seeds which are not passed through a magnetic field. There appears to be two logical explanations for this:

    A.        The magnetic field has an effect on the pea seed chromosomes. This results in faster cell division due to the pre-alignment of the chromosomes by the magnetic field. The seeds therefore germinate quicker.

    B.        After fertilization there is a principle of life which begins to drive the growth process. At an early stage that principle can be stimulated and quickened by many outside forces such as a magnetic field.

    Which explanation would you be more willing to accept?

    If you absolutely have no preference for one over the other, mark "?".

    SOPE ITEM 11

    When plant seeds are grown in small pots it is possible to quicken their growth rate by periodically shaking the pots. This "shaking effect" is poorly understood but there are two schools of thought on the matter:

    A.        The roots of plants use up first the nutrients in the soil which are closest. The result is that the amount of soil nutrients increases with distance from the roots. Shaking stirs up the soil and helps bring richer but distant soil into contact with the roots.

    B.        All living things benefit from an occasional but gentle stirring up of their environment, and even of themselves. It gets the juices, fluids and chemicals moving and flowing. It provides fresh air and removes the stale. It encourages, one might say, the processes of life.

    Which explanation would you be more willing to accept?

    If you absolutely have no preference for one over the other, mark "?".

    SOPE ITEM 12

            Bird migrations are an interesting phenomenon. For instance some geese can fly thousands and thousands of kilometers from one point on the earth to another never getting lost. This remarkable feat of navigation is of great interest to biologists and also controversial.

    There are two much debated explanations:

    A.        Some biologists view bird navigation as a kind of natural movement. For instance, humans, can both walk and crawl; but they always walk because that is what is natural for them to do. It is possible for geese to fly in the wrong direction but that would be like humans crawling. They do not do it because it is unnatural.

    B.        Some biologists are quite convinced that wind currents act like Coriolis forces on the birds. The geese are sensitive to very slight variations in wind force and direction. By instinct they react to these variations and thus maintain their course.

    Which of the two explanations would you be more willing to accept?

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    SOPE ITEM 13

            Is it logically possible for a system to explain itself? It appears to be a tautological dilemma since to explain itself a system can only explain the system in terms of itself. For instance is it possible to know how the brain really works since any theory put forward is a product of the human brain? The dilemma seems very discouraging yet scientists are undeterred.

    A.        The key to understanding any system, no matter how complicated, is in its parts which are necessarily less complicated than the whole. By examining and experimenting with the parts we eventually will learn enough about the whole brain to enable us to restore all neurological disorders.

    B.        Science has enjoyed great progress in understanding natural phenomena and scientists as a result have come to take progress as a scientific right. They have lost sight of the fact that all human endeavors including progress are limited and unending progress is not to be expected. If neuro-scientists were to remember that then their present viewpoint on the human brain would certainly be more humble.

    Which of the above positions would you be more willing to accept?

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    SOPE ITEM 14

            People often wonder when confronted by the human-like characteristics of chimpanzees why they have not evolved the ability for language and speech. Opinion on this issue is divided:

    A.        The thoughts and emotions of a chimp are simple, lacking complexity, and can be communicated to another chimp by simple means, e.g. gestures. On the other hand an elaborate capacity for speech is required by humans because of their equally elaborate structures of thought and emotion. Simple means of communications would just not be sufficient.

    B.        Appearance can be deceiving as in the case of human-like characteristics of chimpanzees. The primary distinction between other animals and human beings is the "humanity" of man which is composed of such abilities as speech and rational thought. Without "humanity" man would indeed be just another animal.

    Which explanation would you be more willing to accept?

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    SOPE ITEM 15

    The goal that geologists have long had is to acquire enough knowledge about earthquakes so that they can be anticipated hours or even days in advance. Now it has been discovered that many animals can do just that. The geologists are still unsure about just how a particular animal senses a quake coming but there are two theories:

    A.        There are many things in the environment that animals sense such as danger or changes in the weather. This is an ability that modern people have lost due to their remoteness from nature and reliance upon technology.

    B.        It has now been learned that there are slight almost imperceptible pre-tremors that come hours, sometimes days before a major quake. These pre-tremors are noticed by animals, particularly grazing animals, which then become quite nervous.

    Which of the above explanations would you be more willing to accept?

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    SOPE ITEM 16

    Certain planetary bodies appear to deviate slightly from their calculated position in space. The deviation is extremely small. Everyone working in this field agrees:

    a. That the deviation exists, and
    b. that Relativity Theory offers the most likely explanation.

    When asked why they supported this explanation workers gave different reasons:

    A.        It is difficult to make accurate measurements and existing experimental evidence lends only weak support for the theory. Nevertheless, the evidence gives better support to this theory than to any other.

    B.        The explanation was published by one of the most distinguished scientists of the 20th century. There is no doubt that he knows more than anyone else in the world about this particular phenomenon.

    Which explanation would you be more likely to support?

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    SOPE ITEM 17

            A physicist at a well known university was conducting a unique set of experiments. He was interested in the effect of electrical discharges on the growth rates of a particular type of tree. The methodology was simple. He administered electrical shocks to one set of trees but not to second. Over a period of several months he measured and compared the growth rates of the two groups. The scientist's work caused a stir amongst his colleagues because he admittedly had no theoretical framework for his research. There were two basic opinions about this kind of experimentation:

    A.        The highly theoretical nature of physics provides an ample number of research problems for experimental work. Theory guided research is more efficient because there is a greater chance of success. This man has picked an idea out of thin air and pursued it for no other reason than idle curiosity.

    B.        This man should not be criticized for his unique albeit different research problem. All too often progress in many fields is thwarted by over-conservatism and rigid adherence to theory. Creativity and independence should be encouraged so that more discoveries can be made and the understanding of nature increased.

    Which opinion would you be more willing to accept?

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    About the author. . .

    William W. Cobern, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Science Education Education and Professional Development at Western Michigan University, 2112 Sangren Hall Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5192. (Voice: +616.387.2255; FAX: +616.387.2882)

    To visit the Scientific Literacy and Cultural Studies Project hompage, click on http://www.wmich.edu/slcsp/slcsp.htm .

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