How people reason: a grounded theory of scientific reasoning about global climate change

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How people reason: a grounded theory of scientific reasoning about global climate change

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Scientific reasoning is crucial in both scientific inquiry and everyday life. While the majority of researchers have studied "how people reason" by focusing on their cognitive processes, factors related to the underpinnings of scientific reasoning are still under-researched. The present study aimed to develop a grounded theory that captures not only the cognitive processes during reasoning but also their underpinnings. In particular, the grounded theory and phenomenographic methodologies were integrated to explore how undergraduate students reason about competing theories and evidence on global climate change. Twenty-six undergraduate students were recruited through theoretical sampling. Constant comparative analysis of responses from interviews and written assessments revealed that participants were mostly drawn to the surface features when reasoning about evidence. While prior knowledge might not directly contribute to participants' performance on evidence evaluation, it affected their level of engagement when reading and evaluating competing arguments on climate issues. More importantly, even though all participants acknowledged the relative correctness of multiple perspectives, they predominantly favored arguments that supported their own beliefs with weak scientific reasoning about the opposing arguments. Additionally, factors such as personal interests, religious beliefs, and reading capacity were also found to have bearings on the way participants evaluated evidence and arguments. In all, this work contributes to the current endeavors in exploring the nature of scientific reasoning. Taking a holistic perspective, it provides an in-depth discussion of factors that may affect or relate to scientific reasoning processes. Furthermore, in comparison with traditional methods used in the literature, the methodological approach employed in this work brought an innovative insight into the investigation of scientific reasoning. Last but not least, this research may help initiate further discussion regarding how to bridge cognitive research with science education to promote student learning of complex scientific issues such as global climate change.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. August 2014. Major: Educational Psychology. Advisor: Dr. Frances Lawrenz. 1 computer file (PDF); vi, 156 pages, appendices 1-3.

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Liu, Shiyu. (2014). How people reason: a grounded theory of scientific reasoning about global climate change. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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