Docstoc

What is science

Document Sample
What is science Powered By Docstoc
					Science as a Way of Knowing


      explain and demonstrate the steps involved in the scientific method



      differentiate between a scientific hypothesis, a scientific theory and a

       scientific law with examples of each



      discriminate between scientific and non scientific ideas and concepts



      discuss the impact of science on the modern world




What is science? Perhaps we should start by asking what science isn’t.



The impact of science on the modern world is so pervasive that it is nearly

impossible to fully appreciate how much we owe to the scientific method and

what it has produced. In fact, the way that science permeates our society is so

complete that it is hard to imagine the world without – yet the world was without it

for most of the history of humankind.



There has not always been science as we know it today. In its simplest definition,

science is a way of knowing. The word comes down to us from the Latin word

scientia – meaning "to know." It is hard to distill the essence of how science is




                                          1
conducted into a concise, one-sentence statement – though often it is attempted.

The rational and systematic approach to understanding and describing nature

that is the hallmark of modern science is a fairly recent human invention1. For the

greatest part of human history, people lived in ignorance of the true nature of the

natural world that surrounded them. While an empirical understanding of their

environment gave them the necessary information to survive, the world of our

ancestors was often a cruel and mysterious place. To understand their world, try

to imagine a time before we knew that microorganisms are the cause of many

diseases. In those times, what would you think caused sicknesses? Would you

blame evil spirits? Could foul odors from rotting vegetation in a nearby swamp be

to blame?2 Maybe the old woman next door had cast a spell on the afflicted

person.



How would you go about healing the sick and the injured? Would you offer

incantations, or apply a poultice of magic herbs?3 What explanation would be

offered for birth defects and other congenital disabilities? Would persons

suffering from these conditions be viewed as "freaks" or "demons" and be dealt

with accordingly?4




1
  The roots of modern science are traceable back to ancient Greece where the application of mathematics to
the study of the natural world was, as best we can tell, first systematically undertaken.
2
  The term malaria literally means "bad air," a reminder that this disease, now known to be caused by a
parasite carried by mosquitoes, was once believed to be the result of the fetid air associated with stagnant
water in swamps.
3
  While many modern medicines are obtained from natural materials, and some folk medicines were quite
effective, many treatments in ancient times were based on the use of purgatives, laxatives and outright
poisons.
4
  The treatment of persons with mental illnesses has been particularly onerous.


                                                     2
Look to the sky at night try not to see the stars as the distant suns we know them

for today. What would you make of them if you were born ten centuries ago?

Where would you place the earth in the whole of creation? How could you begin

to determine how big the earth is, how long it has existed, and how it formed?



A “wise man” is speaking to a group of people. The things he says seem foolish

and rash to you - they don’t make sense, given your experience. How do you

refute his assertions? From what standpoint do you argue? From what authority

does he speak?



Science today offers explanations for phenomena. It makes predictions that

guide us in the quest for further understanding. It is a self-correcting, ever-

compounding means of gaining knowledge about the universe that we inhabit.

There is nothing else like science. There is perhaps no greater achievement in

the history of human culture than the birth of modern science. It has not just

shaped or contributed to our world. It has created the modern world.



Albert Einstein once said this about science: All our science, measured

against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious

thing we have. Einstein’s words remind us that science does not have all the

answers. We still have much to learn. Science shows us the way to knowing, it is,

as the late Carl Sagan referred to it, "a candle in the dark".




                                          3
With science we have a tool to seek understanding. It is ours to use for better or

worse. The fruits of science are more than just things and explanations; science

gives us models that allow us to visualize things unseen. It offers histories for

times long ago and predictions of things yet to come. It is easy to see why to

some, science seems to be a kind of magic. Magic it is not! Consider this

statement by E.M. Butler concerning magic: Magic, it must be remembered, is an

art which demands collaboration between the artist and his public. Science

requires no such collaboration – there is no admonition to “suspend disbelief.”

The findings of science are not dependant on whether we care to accept them or

how they make us feel. It has been said of nature (as revealed by science) that it

is not cruel or kind, just indifferent. We humans add the subjective commentary

to the observations of the world around us.



Science has given us an understanding of the very nature of the atoms that

constitute matter. The knowledge that enables us to tap the enormous energy of

the atom can be used to vaporize a city and its millions of inhabitants or to

destroy a tumor in a loved one's body. It is our choice as to how we employ our

knowledge. From examples like this the question often arises: is science a tool

for good or evil? That is for us to decide. Moral valuations are beyond the realm

of science, for questions of that sort, humans will always require other belief

systems to guide their actions.




                                          4
Does science threaten our beliefs? Only if we choose to believe in ignorance.

Science opens the door to enlightenment, and simultaneously closes it on

dogma. Science is not the equivalent of religion, nor is it a replacement for it,

rather it supplants it. What scares some people about the findings of science is

the same thing that scares them about the truth in many other matters – it may

differ from what we have already decided to believe.



Students sometimes ask why there are so many individuals and groups that

attempt to discredit scientific findings. The answer to that question is beyond this

discussion, but a simple explanation is that sometimes the findings are just not

what we want to believe. Even scientists have to be on guard against having a

closed mind to ideas that challenge their long held notions. An anecdote that

illustrates this point and makes a point of its own has to do with the revolutionary

work of Einstein. His ideas were a direct challenge to the work of Sir Isaac

Newton, one of the true geniuses of all time. In addition, Einstein’s ideas were

counterintuitive – that is to say they did not seem to make sense. Shortly after his

publication of the General Theory of Relativity, a book was published with the

title: One Hundred Scientists Prove why Einstein is Wrong. When asked about

his reaction to the book, Einstein remarked that he had not read the book, but if

in fact he was wrong, only one scientist would be needed to point out the error.

Einstein made a very important point with his comments: the number of people

who believe or disbelieve has no bearing on the truth. Science is not a popularity

contest, ideas are not (or at least should not be) judged on whether we like them




                                          5
or not. The philosopher Henre Poincare observed: “We also know how cruel the

truth often is, and we wonder whether delusion is not more consoling.”



The methodology of science is the subject of much misunderstanding. We are all

taught the steps of the “scientific method” in grade school. We learn that a

question is posed which is the subject of a hypothesis, which is tested through

additional observations and experimentation. If the hypothesis survives scrutiny,

then it may be elevated to a theory. That this material is taught in our science

classes is all well and fine, unfortunately, too often educators fail to explain what

all of this means. When students are asked to define a hypothesis, they

responsively reply: an educated guess. What is an educated guess? How do you

make such a guess? They don’t know.



Another source of confusion arises from the different meanings some words have

when used in scientific discussions, as opposed to their meaning in general

parlance. Take for example the word theory. In science it represents a

hypothesis that has been thoroughly investigated, always passing the tests it is

put to. Scientific theories are well respected and established ideas, concepts or

principles. Still subject to testing and revision, they are nonetheless the

cornerstones of our rational understanding of the universe around us. Contrast

this to the meaning the word has when used by the general public. In common

usage, theory is taken to mean little more than a guess – a hunch – an opinion.

Sometimes individuals will say: “Einstein’s work is just a theory after all,” as if to




                                           6
indicate that the concepts of space and time described by Einstein are just his

way of seeing things and that other “theories” should be considered equivalent.

In actuality, Einstein's work has been proven through tests and experiments to be

the best explanation we currently have to understand those aspects of the

natural world it applies to. Until, or unless, a superior explanation is offered it will

remain the cornerstone of physics.



The points that are perhaps best remembered about the nature of scientific

inquiry are that it proceeds from the realm of existing knowledge, moving into the

unknown, all the while checking to find the best path to the answer. That self

analysis component is very important. What it ensures is that science is self

correcting. Errors will be made. Some hypotheses that are well regarded today

will ultimately be toppled by more accurate explanations, just as Newton's work

was superseded by the contributions of Einstein. That science makes mistakes is

not what is important. What is important is that the way science is conducted

ensures that the mistakes will eventually be discovered and corrected. Some

critics of science will hold up the discarded hypotheses of the past and try to

draw conclusions about the fallibility of science from them. In doing so, these

critics undermine their own argument, since the errors were obviously detected,

and science – making no claim to be infallible – is willing to entertain new ideas

that move us closer to the truth.




                                            7
How do we tell real science from non-science or pseudo-science? Perhaps more

insidious than the outright denial of scientific work, are the claims made by

persons and institutions masquerading as scientists. Their motto seems to be: if

you can’t beat them, join them – or at least try to pass yourself off as one. For

people who do not understand the difference, these ideas and their sponsors

seem to be no different than the real scientists. How then do you tell the

difference?



There are several tests that you should always apply to any thing that presents

itself as a scientific claim or endeavor. The first one is to ask is the hypothesis

at risk? What this means is whether there are any experiments or observations

that could disprove the hypothesis. More importantly, are the proponents of the

hypothesis willing to subject their idea to scrutiny. If the hypothesis is unable to

be tested or there is an unwillingness to allow it to be tested, then it is probably

not a scientific hypothesis5.



Another test to apply is to see if there is a selective use of the facts by the

advocates of the claim or idea. Are the facts that support their position being

used while other facts and observations that do not support it are dismissed? It is

easy to make a case for just about anything if you are willing to glean a few facts

from the body of evidence and use them to support your position, while denying

anything that isn't compatible with your idea. Perhaps even more despicable than


5
 This immediately disqualifies any faith-based beliefs from scientific consideration, since these ideas are
accepted without question.


                                                      8
the simple selective use of facts is the combination of this approach with a policy

of attacks on contrary evidence. When a hypothesis must be supported by the

criticism of other competing ideas (or personal attacks on the people offering

those alternative ideas), you will usually find that it lacks scientific merit.

Sometimes these criticisms are in the form of claims that scientists themselves

do not agree on this point or that, or that science lacks any explanation for a

certain phenomenon (and therefore has no right to question an idea they put

forth). In fact, science - done right - involves a great deal of controversy and

encourages challenges to ideas that are being tested, it is part of the process.

The more a hypothesis is successfully tested, the more confidence the scientific

community will have in it.



While the natural world often exhibits elegance and beauty that underlies the

complexities that science seeks to explain, you must always beware the overly

simplistic explanations sometimes offered by those who advance

pseudoscientific ideas. Gross oversimplification of complex problems is often a

warning sign that you are dealing with a pseudoscientific idea. This approach

plays on the lack of scientific understanding among the general public. Scientists

are portrayed as being "egg heads" or “technocrats" while the "common man"

may have the answer to the mystery at hand but is dismissed because he or she

is not part of the scientific establishment. This approach plays well to the

uneducated or undereducated6 audience, who is often treated to a few examples


6
 This term refers to the vast majority of citizens in the developed world, who have received a formal
education, but have not been properly instructed about the nature of science.


                                                     9
of "proof" of this belief. The argument goes on to promote some common sense

solution or explanation to the complex problem that has "eluded" scientific

explanation. Under this category fall a wide variety of ideas, including many

"cures" for diseases and afflictions7 and many "theories" about natural

phenomena that are based on an incomplete understanding of the problem or

are rooted in long-standing myths and folklore8.



Closely related to the situation described above are the explanations that fall

under the broad category of conspiracy theories. Everyone has heard these,

they include any number of ideas regarding the assassination of President

Kennedy, the death of Elvis, purported cover-ups of crashed UFOs and

technology that is withheld from us by greedy corporations or our own

government9. Again, anecdotes are offered as evidence and the policy "absence

of evidence is not evidence of absence" is frequently invoked. The best way to

challenge these claims is simply to ask what is the motive for keeping the

secret or committing the deception? Would there not be a better reward and

motivation to reveal the "truth?" In an age where our most vital military secrets

are routinely betrayed by traitors and spies, is it reasonable to believe that the

government could keep dead aliens and their wrecked spacecraft a secret for so


7
  Sadly, these ideas often appeal to the desperately ill, who are willing to embrace any hope for a "cure."
These treatments run the gamut from the wearing of magnets to treat arthritis, to the use of coffee enemas
as a treatment for cancer.
8
  Some folk knowledge seems to work, but that is often the result of long-time observations of cause and
effect, and therefore not based on an understanding of the mechanism. Other folk explanations are simply
wrong, but are seldom tested in a way that reveals their failure.
9
  These include claims of automotive technology that could deliver more than 100 miles per gallon being
kept secret by the "big oil companies," and fleets of "black helicopters" operated by the government
tracking citizens considered "suspicious" (often the very people making the claims).


                                                     10
long?10 Why would they? Conspiracy myths are a part of human nature. They

seem to be universal to all cultures. In the scientific era they simply take on

higher tech topics.



Why does so much non-science and pseudo-science exist in a time when we

have the tools at our disposal to objectively investigate nature and seek the

truth? Perhaps it is because we don't want invest the time and effort to learn

about what science offers. Perhaps it is because we are told to believe

otherwise. Perhaps it is because we want to comfort or entertain ourselves with a

"reality" of our own choosing. The list could go on, but I will conclude by

reminding those who deny the findings of science that there once was a time

when most people thought the earth to be flat, yet it was no less round for their

wrong ideas.




10
  The story of a crashed spacecraft being recovered near Roswell, New Mexico, has attracted a cult
following that is astounding. Even after reasonable explanations have been offered, and previously
classified documents released that seem to indicate that an Air Force experiment was the source of the
Roswell story, "believers" refuse to be swayed.


                                                    11

				
DOCUMENT INFO