October 2013 Volume 3, Issue 1

Experimental Philosophy and Secondary School Science Research Protocols

Jonathan S. Wolf, EdM, MA
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Physics
Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York 11549


The expansion of secondary school science research in the past two decades has brought down, from the university level, a classic issue: What is a suitable research project to pursue within the context of interest and the body of knowledge acquired? In the context of secondary school science, where research might begin in ninth grade, the question becomes even greater.

As a matter of teaching philosophy, the research program director must weigh the issues of reductionism and relevancy. In other words, should the student, with limited background, engage in research to uncover fundamental aspects of the discipline (so-called “pure” science) or work on an issue of applied research that has the potential for practical benefits?

Reductionism, in science, will posit that one engages in research to discover those Truths that are fundamental to all applications. P. W. Anderson1, quotes physicist Victor Weisskopf when he states:
“Looking at the development of science in the twentieth century one can distinguish two trends, which I will call ‘intensive’ and ‘extensive’ research lacking a better terminology. In short: intensive research goes for the fundamental laws, extensive research goes for the explanation of phenomena in terms of known fundamental laws. As always, distinctions of this kind are not unambiguous, but they are clear in most cases. Solid state physics, plasma physics, and perhaps also biology are extensive. High energy physics and a good part of nuclear physics are intensive. There is always much less intensive research going on than extensive. Once new fundamental laws are discovered, a large and ever increasing activity begins in order to apply the discoveries to hitherto unexplained phenomena. Thus, there are two dimensions to basic research. The frontier of science extends all along a long line from the newest and most modern intensive research, over the extensive research recently spawned by the intensive research of yesterday, to the broad and well developed web of extensive research activities based on intensive research of past decades.”

How does this apply to “theoretical” research (especially at the secondary school level? In a speech, honoring the 60th birthday of Max Planck (in 1918), Albert Einstein stated2:

“Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.

“What place does the theoretical physicist's picture of the world occupy among all these possible pictures? It demands the highest possible standard of rigorous precision in the description of relations, such as only the use of mathematical language can give. In regard to his subject matter, on the other hand, the physicist has to limit himself very severely: he must content himself with describing the most simple events which can be brought within the domain of our experience; all events of a more complex order are beyond the power of the human intellect to reconstruct with the subtle accuracy and logical perfection which the theoretical physicist demands. Supreme purity, clarity, and certainty at the cost of completeness. But what can be the attraction of getting to know such a tiny section of nature thoroughly, while one leaves everything subtler and more complex shyly and timidly alone? Does the product of such a modest effort deserve to be called by the proud name of a theory of the universe?

“In my belief the name is justified; for the general laws on which the structure of theoretical physics is based claim to be valid for any natural phenomenon whatsoever. With them, it ought to be possible to arrive at the description, that is to say, the theory, of every natural process, including life, by means of pure deduction, if that process of deduction were not far beyond the capacity of the human intellect. The physicist's renunciation of completeness for his cosmos is therefore not a matter of fundamental principle.

“The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them. In this methodological uncertainty, one might suppose that there were any number of possible systems of theoretical physics all equally well justified; and this opinion is no doubt correct, theoretically. But the development of physics has shown that at any given moment, out of all conceivable constructions, a single one has always proved itself decidedly superior to all the rest. Nobody who has really gone deeply into the matter will deny that in practice the world of phenomena uniquely determines the theoretical system, in spite of the fact that there is no logical bridge between phenomena and their theoretical principles; this is what Leibnitz described so happily as a ‘pre-established harmony.’”

In establishing a research program for secondary schools, I would argue that STEM gives us an opportunity, minus the competitions and awards, to develop habits of mind in those students interested in scientific research. Coupled with a firm grounding in basic content, research methodology must include more than just following the so-called “scientific method”. The fundamental ideas of the philosophy and history of science must be incorporated from the beginning.

The issue of relevancy, at this level, need not be a determining factor in choosing a research project. If a student has an interest in the “big picture” idea, do we steer him/her in that direction to explore the nature of fundamental research (with success or failure) and use those experiences to further develop critical and creative thinking or pursue a normative approach in assigning a student to a mentor at a lab facility engaging, and learn along the way the basic content needed?

We can read some remarkable reports of research by performed by secondary school students in a journal such as JESS. But as a teacher, and advocate for the teaching of the history of science in the secondary school science program, I wonder if the students are developing those habits of mind, an appreciation for the struggles of those who tackled similar problems, and the philosophical ideas that guide the asking of the questions that promote the problems they are researching. Michael R. Matthews writes3:

“One part of this contribution by HPS (History and Philosophy of Science) is to connect topics in particular scientific disciplines, to connect the disciplines of science with each other, to connect the sciences generally with mathematics, philosophy, literature, psychology, history, technology, commerce and theology, and finally, to display the interconnections of science and culture-the arts, ethics, religion, politics-more broadly. Science has developed in conjunction with other disciplines; there has been mutual interdependence. It has also developed, and is practiced, within a broader cultural and social milieu. These interconnections and interdependencies can be appropriately explored in science programs from elementary school through graduate study.”     

I leave it to others to provide the answers, and with apologies to Newton,
“Hypotheses non fingo”4!



1. P.W. Anderson, “More is Different”, Science, Vol. 177, No.4047 (April 4, 1972), pp 393-396.

2. Albert Einstein, translated in Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishing, New York, 1954.

3. Michael R. Matthews, Science Teaching, The Role of History and Philosophy in Science, Routledge, New York, London, 1994, page xv.

4. “I frame no hypotheses”. Isaac Newton, The Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy, Andrew Motte’s English translation revised  by Florian Cajori, University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 1960.