Gould - "Science is a pluralistic enterprise with a rich panoply of methods appropriate for different kinds of problems... Direct vision isn't the only, or even the usual, method of inference...(Gould, 1987, pg. 70).
Webster's Dictionary defines science as "the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of natural phenomena."
The Oxford English Dictionary defines science as "a branch of study which is concerned with a body of demonstrated truths or observed facts, systematically classified and more or less colligated by being brought under general laws, and which includes trustworthy methods for the discovery of new truths within its own domain."
Cuffey adds that "using actual practice as the basis for definition, we can define 'science' simply as the attempt to understand natural phenomena more completely by means of repeatable or verifiable observation of natural phenomena. (This is broader than the rigid, prediction or experiment-oriented definitions developed by some philosophers not actively engaged in scientific work.)" (Montagu, pg. 269).
"Science is devoted to formulating and testing naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. It is a process for systematically collecting and recording data about the physical world, then categorizing and studying the collected data in an effort to infer the principles of nature that best explain the observed phenomena."
The processes whereby scientific theories are supported or rejected is called the Scientific Method. In most science classrooms students are told that this process can be broken down into the following steps:
However, this sterile formula of simplification to bare components, experiment under controlled conditions of a laboratory, prediction, and replication is not the entirety of science. (Gould, 1987, pg. 69)
The collection of facts "The grist for the mill of scientific inquiry is an ever increasing body of observations that give information about underlying 'facts.' Facts are the properties of natural phenomena, The scientific method involves the rigorous methodical testing of principles that might present a naturalistic explanation for those facts.
Notation of discrepancies helps to form a basis for the statement of problems.
Based on well established facts, testable hypotheses are formed. The process of testing "leads scientists to accord a special dignity to those hypotheses that accumulate substantial observational or experimental support." This "special dignity" is denoted by the granting of the title "theory," which, when it "explains a large and diverse body of facts" is considered "robust" and if it "consistently predicts new phenomena that are subsequently observed," it is "reliable."
is "A test under controlled conditions that is made to demonstrate a known truth, examine the validity of a hypothesis, or determine the efficacy of something previously untried."
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition
Testing hypotheses generated by historical sciences (where direct experimentation is impossible) requires the scientist to patiently wait for "new" data to be uncovered from the historical source.
"If you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid - not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain you results." Feynman, 1988 p 247.
A deduction; making specific predictions from the general conclusions. As part of a conclusion the researcher will suggest a means of verification, that is checking the predictions against further observations. This allows the scientific method to be self-correcting.
This scientific process is what philosophers of science call the hypothetico-deductive method, which involves
According to S. J. Gould "in the American vernacular, 'theory' often means 'imperfect fact' - part of a hierarchy of confidence running downhill from fact - theory - hypothesis - guess". But Gould points out that "facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas."
Isaac Asimov states that "a theory is a detailed description based on long observation and, where possible, experiment. It is the result of careful reasoning from these observations and has survived the critical study of scientists generally." For more about Scientific Theories go to Asimov's Relativity of Wrong.
Science cannot lead us to absolute truth, since facts are even subject to interpretation. Science historian Paul Feyerabend writes "science knows no 'bare facts' at all... the 'facts' that enter our knowledge are already viewed in a certain way."
G.G. Simpson reminds us that "a fact is something that can be observed and that can be confirmed by the observations of others. ...Truth is interpretation of fact, and part of the scientific attitude is that any such interpretation is subject to correction. Truth in this sense can only be relative or tentative".
Although the scientific method has been established and dutifully followed, does it improve critical thinking and discovery. Physicist Robert March maintains that the scientific method only applies to the way facts and ideas are tested. Discovery however follows a different pattern more often than not, "a lucky guess based on shaky arguments and absurd ad hoc assumptions gives a formula that turns out to be right, though at first no one can see why on earth it should be."
K. C. Cole points out that "Ideas like Einstein's relativity, Bohr's atom, and Copernicus's sun-centered solar system went against most current facts - not to mention most common sense." "Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought." (A. Szent-Georgi)
Thomas Kuhn (MIT science historian) postulates that the scientific method is "a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education." However this is not a bad thing since without some means of focusing in on the enormous quantity of information, scientists could never "penetrate existing knowledge to the core."
This must always be tempered with the understanding that "the scientist believes in proof without certainty, the bigot in certainty without proof. "Let us never forget that tyranny most often springs from a fanatical faith in the absoluteness of one's beliefs." (Ashley Montagu, pg. 9)
- Observation and recording followed by analysis
- Comparative studies of systems which are alike in some respects but different in others.
- Abstention form threat
"Science does not claim to have all the answers. Science is a way of looking at things, and the first approach of a scientist is to doubt and not believe." (Halstead)
In order to determine if science and its theories are justifiable, and provide the best possible explanation of the natural world, the theory must pass numerous tests. In other words it must be repeatable.
Once a theory is established it will exert a powerful influence over further scientific investigation. "Successful theories establish themselves as the 'paradigm' for scientific activity: They define not only acceptable techniques for tackling problems but also which problems to be considered relevant subjects for scientific investigation" (Bowler, pg. 15)
"On principle, it is quite wrong to try founding a theory on observable magnitudes alone. It is the theory which decides what we can observe." (A. Einstein, from J. Bernstein, "The Secret of the Old Ones, II." New Yorker, March 17, 1973).
Science historians and philosophers have established four areas for theory evaluation. These include logical, empirical, sociological, and historical criteria.
Eldredge, Niles. 1982. The Monkey Business (A Scientist Looks at Creationism). Washington Square Press.
Futuyma, Douglas J. 1982. Science on Trial (The Case of Evolution.) Pantheon Books, New York.
Kitcher, Philip. 1984. Abusing Science (The Case Against Creationism.) MIT Press.
McGowan, Chris. 1984. In the Beginning (A Scientist Shows Why the Creationists Are Wrong). Prometheus Books.
Montagu, Ashely, Ed. 1984. Science and Creationism, Oxford University Press.
Ruse, Michael. 1982. Darwinism Defended (A Guide to the Evolution Controversies). The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Co.
Modified July. 6, 2005