from The Worldview Literacy Book   copyright 2009            back to worldview theme #6


     Science begins with intellectual curiosity: someone is puzzled by something they observe and decides to investigate.  The related quest for knowledge can run into obstacles and lead to specific problems.  Some define science as a body of knowledge ultimately founded on observation; other definitions stress the method by which this knowledge is gathered and problems are solved.  Others, looking at the big picture, define science as a methodical effort to provide a map or conceptual framework for understanding Reality. 

     While the scientific method has been characterized as humankind's greatest invention, in truth there is no universally agreed on way that scientific investigation proceeds.  Obviously not all scientists do things the same way.  The order in which certain component parts of the scientific method can vary with its application. Experimental scientists do things differently from theoretical scientistsor from those working in branches of science where experiments aren't possible (astronomy for example).  But generally all science involves what is described in the opening sentence of the above worldview theme.  And feedback plays a key role in implementation of the scientific method. (See Figure #6a.)  To illustrate, imagine the following.

     An experiment is conducted—which means the scientist interferes with nature and creates conditions or events that favor making a particular observation or establishing a particular hypothesis.  The results of this experiment are compared with the results expected (or predicted) based on the hypothesis—this is the "testing" part of the method.  If the fit between the actual and predicted results is a good one—as judged by  statistical tests—then the hypothesis is accepted.  If the fit is not good, the hypothesis and/or experiment will be modified, and the testing will be repeated.  The scientific investigator(s) may spend months, even years, stuck in this feedback loop part of the scientific method—forming new hypotheses, gathering data, testing, etc. only to emerge from it with a hypothesis that demonstratively fits the data.  Eventually they will publish their findings for others to verify—and provide more feedback: "Yes, we can reproduce your results!" or "No, you guys failed to control X.  When we do that we find that your hypothesis is not established!" or whatever.  In short, the feedback built into the scientific method serves as a self-correcting mechanism that weeds out findings based on shoddy experimental design, questionable observations, someone's wishful thinking, fraud or whatever, and prevents the faulty conclusions of such flawed work from becoming part of the body of scientific knowledge.  

     Science itself—this body of knowledge and the framework it fits into—is tentative.  Many years ago Judge William Overton, in an Arkansas case pitting teaching evolution vs. teaching creationism, made the distinction between science and religion. He wrote, "A scientific theory must be tentative and always   


subject to revision or abandonment in light of facts that are inconsistent with, or falsify the theory.  A theory that is, by its own terms, dogmatic, absolutist and never subject to revision is not a scientific theory."  Science is dynamic, ideally evolving so that the fit between its description of Reality and Reality itself, as gauged by predictions it makes, steadily improves.     

     Some trace the beginning of science to Greeks such as Thales (6th century BCE) who believed in a orderly universe:   there is an order and organization to the universe due to its functioning in accordance with a small number of natural laws —laws which can conceivably be uncovered and understood by humans.  Many place the threshold of modern science at the year 1600.  Some even trace its development in the struggle of one man—Johann Kepler (1571-1630)—to turn his back on pseudoscience / mysticism and embrace the scientific method. Kepler eventually did just that in using observed positions of the planet Mars (made by Tycho Brahe) to confirm Copernicus' hypothesis Mars orbits the Sun.  He refined this to give Mars an elliptical rather than circular orbit. Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler, and of course Galileo were among those Issac Newton (1642-1727) credited when he said, "If I have seen farther than others, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants."

     Newton is generally thought of as the father of modern physical science.  The so called classical physics laid down in his 1687 book Mathematical Principles of Physics survived unchallenged for two centuries.  Only in the first two decades of the twentieth century was its absolute picture of space & time, and deterministic treatment of physical events replaced by the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, respectively.  Relativity, worked out by Einstein in 1905-1915, is needed to understand the motion of objects moving at speeds comparable to that of light or in strong gravitational fields.  It has been confirmed by nearly a century of physicists' experimental testing to a high degree of precision.  So too has quantum mechanics, despite Einstein's dislike of its probabilistic nature and belief that it would soon be replaced by a deterministic theory.  

     Conceivably, in the future the scientific conceptual framework may change to incorporate certain (poorly observed, paranormal, etc.) phenomena that currently don't fit.  This will only happen if testable hypotheses can be formulated and verified beyond doubt.  Science will also advance as its tools and instrumentation improve, uncertainties (which always exist, there are no perfect measurements!) in measured quantities become smaller, and a finer probing of Reality becomes possible.  Of course there are limits: both relativity and quantum mechanics suggest some.  More fundamentally the conceptual map science provides will never perfectly describe Reality nor what it is like for those experiencing Reality.  It will always be a step removed from Reality and therefore fall short!    


          Figure #6a

The Scientific Method

Figure #6b

The Relevance of Science

"Who are we? The answer to this question is not only one of the tasks of science but THE task of science."       Erwin Schrodinger


"By emphasizing and explaining the dependency of living things on each other and on the physical environment, science fosters the kind of intelligent respect for nature that should inform decisions on the uses of technology."  Science for All Americans, by F. J. Rutherford & Andrew Ahlgren


"Science alerts us to the perils introduced by our world-altering technologies, especially to the global environment on which our lives depend.  Science provides an essential early warning system."             Carl Sagan 

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