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
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
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
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.
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.
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
The treatment of persons with mental illnesses has been particularly onerous.
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".
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
This immediately disqualifies any faith-based beliefs from scientific consideration, since these ideas are
accepted without question.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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
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.