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How Do the Realist and Instrumentalist Interpretations of Science Differ?


Scientific interpretation is an important aspect that has helped explain many phenomena that occurs in the world in a significant manner. It is vital for the essay to explore various approaches towards the interpretation of theories, processes and various concepts as they relate to the natural world (Furedy, 1991). Two of the most prominent approaches utilized towards the interpretation of science include the realist and instrumentalist strategies that have proved to be differing in one way or the other. The primary aim of the essay is to explore arguments related to the two approaches with a view of establishing distinct differences (Fine, 1986). For instance, realist approach refers to the belief that explanations, theories and other aspects in science are a reflection of the true or approximately true descriptions of the natural physical world. Equally, instrumentalists believe that the theories and concepts existing in science are utilized as tools that can help people achieve their goals (Lawson, 2001). In essence, the essay aims to explore the two approaches to interpretation of science, with a view of establishing which among them is more plausible. Examining existing literature on approaches towards interpreting science can help gain a deeper insight on the most plausible method that can be applied.

The Realist Approach towards Science Interpretation

The realist approach assumes that concepts,, theories and other aspects in science are a true or approximately a true reflection of the natural physical world (Hesse, 2020). It is important for the essay to explore basic concepts that underlie the scope of the realist approach in a bid to gain a deeper insight towards differences with the instrumentalist approach. Science aims to provide an explanation about the natural world and existence of various laws. The realist approach provides a strategic option that helps explain theories, models and other concepts as they relate to the natural world (Furedy, 1991). The approach is a positive epistemic attitude towards various theories and models, recommending that individuals should believe in both observable and unobservable aspects of the world as described by science. The realist approach assumes that scientific research is a strategy to gain a deeper understanding towards various phenomena in the natural world.

Another important aspect about scientific realism is that it interprets science in a manner that allows one to believe or not believe the actual findings of a study. It is important to note that anti-realists believe that only observable features about the world should count while realists believe that both observable and unobservable aspects of the world matter (Rowbottom, 2019). Realism rejects imaginative idealization in a manner that favors close observation of outward appearances. Many realists across the world put emphasis on what is real and true, which makes the approach to interpretation of science more reliable (Bhakthavatsalam and Kidd, 2019). Failure to make a clear distinction between the instrumentalist and realist approach to interpretation of science would be detrimental towards filling the gap of information on the two concepts that are crucial towards understanding scientific aspects. The realist approach is elaborate on the inclusion of unobservable and observables when making conclusions about the natural world.

It is important to provide an example that can help illustrate the existence of realist approach in gaining an understanding to various phenomena in science. For instance, existence of electrons in an atom is a confirmation that there are aspects in the natural world that are unobservable but existent (Fine, 1986). Realists take a position to defend the existence of such aspects in the natural world as a way of interpreting various aspects in the physical world. The best current scientific theories, models, and other ideas in the natural world are at least true according to the realist approach towards interpreting science (Hesse, 2020). This is unlike the instrumentalist approach where the theories and models are tools that help understand and explain the natural world in a significant manner. Realists believe that the approximate truth of a scientific theory is the only possible explanation of its forecasted success (Lawson, 2001). Equally, the theory assumes that scientific theories make genuine and existential claims that can be accounted for through other methods. In essence, the theory can be used to increase understanding on various phenomena and other theoretical concepts in the natural physical world.

Instrumentalist Approach to Interpretation of Science

Another important approach used to explain phenomena in the scientific world is the instrumentalist approach that assumes that theories, models and concepts are avenues utilized to make predictions about phenomena (Cacioppo, Semin and Berntson, 2004). According to instrumentalists, scientific theories are used to predict various issues instead of providing the true or approximately true descriptions of the physical world. Instrumentalism is the opposite of scientific realism where people tend to believe in observable and unobservable aspects as an explanation to the physical world. It is vital to understand the difference between the two as a way of gaining a deeper understanding on the discussion topic. A physical theory is not an explanation about the natural world and instead, it is a system of propositions whose aim is to represent as possible the whole group of experimental laws (Bhakthavatsalam and Kidd, 2019). Most people ignore some characteristics that should be important when making an explanation about the physical world. Instrumentalists do not deny that some theories and aspects in science are not true but rather view them as avenues that can be improved through other processes such as research (Rowbottom, 2019). Cognitive activities of humans work in a manner that aims to satisfy needs and find out true facts about the physical world. The instrumentalist approach should be utilized to make explanations where necessary regarding the physical world.

The value of scientific concepts and theories is not based on whether the facts held are true or untrue but rather the extent that they help make accurate empirical predictions or solve conceptual problems (Cacioppo, Semin and Berntson, 2004). The basic difference is that realism believes that the theories are true or at least true while instrumentalists do not take that into account but rather how helpful the ideas can be towards solving conceptual issues. According to John Dewey, instrumentalism is the view that knowledge results from the discernment or correlations between events or processes of change. In essence, the main argument presented by instrumentalists is that the theories and concepts in science are used as predictive tools that can change the society for the better (Bhakthavatsalam and Kidd, 2019). Most realists reject instrumentalist approaches to explanation of scientific phenomenon as the two are based on different principles. For instance, an experiment may seek to discern how students can become better learners when exposed to particular strategies or instructions.

Ideas are instruments or tools that human beings utilize to make greater sense of the world in a significant manner. Equally, ideas refer to plans of actions and predictors of future events (Psillos, 2017). For instance, one can have the idea of a hammer when they need to use it to perform a particular function. An idea in the science of medicine can imply a vaccine that is used to control and treat a certain disease (Rowbottom, 2019). The facts in science can be true or false according to instrumentalists even though the ideas can be utilized to make the world a better place for all humans. In essence, instrumentalists believe that the best way to evaluate a theory is how efficient it is in explaining phenomenon and changing the world to a better place (Cacioppo, Semin and Berntson, 2004). It is vital to highlight that there is no amount of evidence that can be used to ascertain that a certain theory of science is indeed true hence the need to adopt an instrumentalist approach towards the same.

Argument Discussion

It is important to analyze the two approaches towards the interpretation of science and ascertain which of the two approaches is plausible. A close examination of the two indicates that realists take a different approach towards gaining an understanding of the natural world (Psillos, 2017). For instance, instrumentalists believe that the best approach towards evaluating a theory is through its effectiveness in explaining situations or making the world better. It is important to note that there is no amount of evidence that can make a theory or concept true and there is a need to assess effectiveness and efficiency of a theory in changing the world (Fine, 1986). Much needs to be done in relation to the same and ascertain the best possible approach towards understanding the physical world. In essence, the instrumentalist approach proves to be the most plausible explanation or interpretation towards science and other aspects.


To sum it up, there is a clear distinction between the realist and instrumentalist approaches towards the interpretation of science. Realists believe that theories, tools and ideas in science are true or approximately true of the existing physical world. on the other hand, instrumentalists believe that every concept in science is a tool utilized by human beings to make the world a better place. Equally, there is no specific amount of evidence that should validate a specific theory. Instead, evaluation should be done based on useful the concepts are in improving the lives of people. In essence, scientific explanations are made based on gathered facts about the natural world. Both realists and instrumentalists should come up with research that improves understanding on the same. However, the instrumentalist approach seems more plausible as compared to the realist strategy towards interpretation of science.


Bhakthavatsalam, S. and Kidd, I.J., 2019. Science, realism, and unconceived alternatives: introduction to the special issue on unconceived alternatives. Synthese196(10), pp.3911-3913.

Cacioppo, J.T., Semin, G.R. and Berntson, G.G., 2004. Realism, instrumentalism, and scientific symbiosis: psychological theory as a search for truth and the discovery of solutions. American psychologist59(4), p.214.

Fine, A., 1986. Unnatural attitudes: Realist and instrumentalist attachments to science. Mind95(378), pp.149-179.

Furedy, J.J., 1991. Cognitivism and the conflict between realist and instrumentalist approaches to scientific theorising. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne32(3), p.461.

Hesse, M., 2020. CHAPTER TWELVE. A Realist Interpretation of Science. In The Structure of Scientific Inference (pp. 283-302). University of California Press.

Lawson, T., 2001. Two responses to the failings of modern economics: the instrumentalist and the realist. Review of Population and Social Policy10(1), pp.155-181.

Psillos, S., 2017. The realist turn in the philosophy of science. In The Routledge handbook of scientific realism (pp. 20-34). Routledge.

Rowbottom, D.P., 2019. The instrument of science: Scientific anti-realism revitalised. Routledge.


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