Science: A way of knowing

Citation: Huitt, W. (2004). Science: A way of knowing. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University.

Return to: | EdPsyc Interactive: Courses | Home Page |

Having a true or correct view of the universe, how it works, and how we as human beings are influenced by our nature and our surroundings are important goals for educators. In general, there are four ways or methods by which truth about phenomena can be ascertained. First, we can know something is true because we trust the source of the information. For example, we may read a textbook or review a research study. We can also use references such as religious literature (e.g., the Talmud, the Bible, the Koran, etc.) In both cases, the information has been revealed to us and we trust the source of the information. Second, we may know something is true through intuition or personal inspiration. We may feel strongly that we have been "guided" to truth through an insight that is unique and personal. A third way of knowing is through personal experience. This is often a powerful approach to many people. A fourth way of knowing is through reason or thinking logically and critically about the first three.

Each of these ways of knowing is potentially flawed. We may read something from an otherwise credible source who has made a mistake relative to a particular issue. We may also have an inspiration that upon further investigation proves to be incorrect. The possibility of error through personal experience is well known by way of optical illusions. And obviously, reason is capable of error since so many scientists have different explanations for the same set of data and teachers of religion have different explanations of the same inspired text.

Kerlinger (1973) summarizing the writings of the philosopher Charles Pierce (as cited in Buchler, 1955 and Cohen & Nagel, 1934), provides a slightly different view of the four methods by which we determine truth. The first is the method of tenacity whereby truth is what is known to the individual or group. It simply is true. The second is the method of authority in which truth is established through a trusted source such as God, tradition, or public sanction. The third is the a prori method or the method of intuition. The fourth method is the scientific method which attempts to define a process for defining truth that produces results verifiable by others and is self-correcting. Kerlinger's definition of scientific research is that it is a "systematic, controlled, empirical, and critical investigation of hypothetical propositions about the presumed relations among natural phenomena" (p. 11).

Science, in terms of the ways of knowing discussed by Kerlinger (1973), might be considered a special case of the combination of experience and reason. While inspiration or intuition often plays an important role in scientific discovery, it must be subjected to experience that can be publicly verified and reason before it is accepted. The same holds true of revealed information; it is expected that we replicate or test out someone else's experience or ideas as reported in scientific or nonscientific literature or religious scripture.

My conceptualization of this topic is to focus on the sources of knowledge we might use. For example, we might use personal experience as known through the senses, unconscious knowledge or insight, or the methods and criteria associated with religion, philosophy or science. Each of these sources can be discussed in terms of such dimensions as the primary focus of the approach, the foundation upon which knowledge is based, the methods for acquiring knowledge and so forth. The following table presents an overview of this conceptualization.

The study of reality beginning with personal experience as known through the senses The study of reality beginning with unconscious knowledge or insight The study of reality beginning with the meta-physical or spiritual aspect of the universe The study of reality as viewed through the human mind

The study of the essence of reality

The study of reality beginning with the material aspect of the universe
Foundation of
Faith2 in sensory data and perceptions Faith in personal intuition, inspiration, and feelings Faith in authority of revelation

Faith in ultimate unknowns

Faith in reason Faith in reason and the experience of utilizing the scientific method
Methods of
Acquiring Knowledge
Personal interaction with the material, human and spiritual aspects of self and environment

Reflection on life experiences



Dream analysis

Right-brain thinking techniques



Reading/listening to scriptures

Discipline of material self/ego

Association with other believers




Other methods used in science and religion

Left-brain thinking techniques

Careful description/
data collection




Criteria for
Personal, subjective

Consistent with prior experiences, reflections and interpretations

Personal, subjective

Interpretation of feeling, affect

Personal, subjective

Interpretation of revealed word or scriptures

Consistent with prior interpretations and reflections


Public, objective

Logically consistent

Appropriate to issue or topic under investigation

Public, objective


Replicable, cumulative

Concise, systematic

Schools of 
Idiosyncratic to the individual

Influenced by biology, social interactions, and culture

Personality Types

Art and Humanities




Personal Growth and

Problem Solving

Middle Eastern
Baha'i Faith



Systems Theory
Social Cognitive

Systems (Organismic)
of Change
for Human Beings
Human beings construct meaning from their experiences with the world

This construction is "real" to the individual even if it does not match objective "reality." 

It is possible, but very difficult, to change the constructed paradigm of how the world works, especially after puberty

Human beings can utilize unconscious knowledge to provide insights that can lead to profound change

Unlimited potential for change if correct inspirations are rightly followed

Middle Eastern
Single, All- knowing, All- loving Creator constructed human beings with capacities/powers (to know, to love, to will) that can be infinitely developed

Hinduism and Sikhism share the concept of a Creator; Buddhism and Taoism emphasize the emergent qualities of a human being's spiritual

Range of views on possibilities of personal development of human capacities

Most acknowledge that context will impose time/social/
geographical limitations

Range of views on possibilities of personal development of human capacities

With possible exception of humanistic, there is limited potential for personal control of individual development because of powerful biological, evolutionary, historical, and social forces

  1. A common foundation for all approaches is the independent investigation and search for truth
  2. Faith--unquestioning belief; certitude; complete trust, confidence or reliance; conscious knowledge; generally has emotional connotation; often based on unprovable assumptions

If one accepts that a human being is an entirely physical or material phenomena (i.e., no aspect of the human being is spiritual or nonmaterial (see Hunt, 1994), then the primary use of the scientific approach to discover how human beings are structured, how they function, and how they change over time within and among different contexts or ecologies seems to be warranted. However, if that basic proposition or assumption is not accepted, rather if it is accepted that the human being is, in essence, a spiritual being (de Chardin, 1980), then the exclusive use of the scientific method (or for that matter personal experience or material philosophy) to discern truth about human beings and human behavior is probably not warranted.

The issue of the best source of "truth" is a major controversy in our society today. However, since educational and developmental psychology are considered disciplines within the science of psychology, we will use the scientific method as the basis for discerning truth in this course. This is not meant to invalidate other ways of knowing in terms of making a significant contribution to our study of human beings. Rather it is to remind us that, while other ways of knowing can make important contributions to our understanding of human behavior, the power of scientific knowledge and methods is to show us how our perceptions of knowledge arrived at through these other ways are sometimes incorrect. Conflicts among understandings derived from separate ways of knowing point to the need for, or perhaps highlight, possible new understandings that can resolve the conflict. After all, truth is truth in whichever form we observe it. Ultimately, if a concept, principle, or theory is true, it will be validated by each and every way of knowing. That is, when all four or five ways of knowing (using one of the classification systems presented above) produce similar results, our confidence that we have discovered "truth" is greatly increased. We must keep this point in mind as we explore the findings of science presented in this course.

Based on this analysis of different ways of knowing I have begun to construct a statement of my viewpoint or philosophy of human nature. I hope you can use it as a starting point to develop your own.

Science is one of those ways; scientists have established a set of rules and methodology by which truth is verified (Kuhn, 1962). The process of science generally follows a paradigm that defines the rules and describes procedures, instrumentation and methods of interpretation of data (Wilber, 1998). The results of science are formulated into a hierarchy of increasing complexity of knowledge: facts, concepts, principles, theories, and laws. When engaged in the process of science, scientists formulate hypotheses or educated guesses about the relationships between or among different facets of knowledge.

Assessment, measurement, research, and evaluation are part of the processes of science and issues related to each topic often overlap. Assessment refers to the collection of data to describe or better understand an issue. This can involve qualitative data (words and/or pictures) or quantitative data (numbers). Measurement is the term used for quantitative data as it is "the process of quantifying observations [or descriptions] about a quality or attribute of a thing or person" (Thondike and Hagen, 1986, p. 5). The process of measurement involves three steps:

  1. identifying and defining the quality or attribute that is to be measured;
  2. determining a set of operations by which the attribute may be made manifest and perceivable; and
  3. establishing a set of procedures or definitions for translating observations into quantitative statements of degree or amount. (p. 9)

Assessment and/or measurement are done with respect to variables (phenomena that can take on more than one value or level). For example, the variable "gender" has the values or levels of male and female and data could be collected relative to this variable. Data, both qualitative and quantitative, are generally collected through one or more of the following methods:

  1. Paper/pencil--Collection of data through self-reports, interviews, questionnaires, tests or other instruments
  2. Systematic observation--Researcher looks for specific actions or activities, but is not involved in the actions being observed
  3. Participant observation--Researcher is actively involved in the process being described and writes up observations at a later time
  4. Clinical--Data are collected by specialists in the process of treatment

Research refers to the use of data for the purpose of describing, predicting, and controlling as a means toward better understanding the phenomena under consideration, and evaluation refers to the comparison of data to a standard for the purpose of judging worth or quality. Three types of research studies are normally performed: descriptive, correlational, and experimental. The issues of research validity are discussed from a general perspective by Campbell and Stanley (1966).

Collecting data (assessment), quantifying that data (measurement), making judgments (evaluation), and developing understanding about the data (research) always raise issues of reliability and validity. The issue of reliability is essentially the same for all aspects of assessment, research, and evaluation. Reliability attempts to answer our concerns about the consistency of the information collected (i.e., can we depend on the data or findings?), while validity focuses on accuracy or truth. The relationship between reliability and validity can be confusing because measurements (e.g., tests) and research can be reliable without being valid, but they cannot be valid unless they are reliable. This simply means that for a test or study to be valid it must consistently (reliability) do what it purports to do (validity). For a measurement (e.g., a test score) to be judged reliable it should produce a consistent score; for the research study to be considered reliable each time it is replicated it too should produce similar results.

Dictionary definitions of terms used in measurement often give one only part of the picture. For example, validity is given as the adverb of valid which means "strong." Unfortunately, this type of definition is not specific enough when the term is used in certain contexts such as research or evaluation. Additionally, education and psychology use validity in multiple ways, each having several components. For example, research findings may be reliable (consistent across studies), but not valid (accurate or true statements about relationships among "variables"), but findings may not be valid if they are not reliable. At a minimum, for an instrument to be reliable a consistent set of data must be produced each time it is used; for a research study to be reliable it should produce consistent results each time it is performed.


| Internet Resources | Electronic Files |

Return to: | EdPsyc Interactive: Courses | Home Page |

All materials on this website [] are, unless otherwise stated, the property of William G. Huitt. Copyright and other intellectual property laws protect these materials. Reproduction or retransmission of the materials, in whole or in part, in any manner, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, is a violation of copyright law.