Daily Archives: June 9, 2007

Science Primer

I haven’t done one of these in a while. It doesn’t ever seem to really help, but it makes me feel better.  Please pardon the interruption for these few words…

Science. What is science and what can it do for you? The goal of science is to understand and share understanding of the natural world. Science is a pathway to obtain truth. The scientific method is used to achieve this goal.* Since there are plenty of places to find out what science and the scientific method are, I will focus on what they are not, since that seems to have many people confused. Science uses many of the same terms as other fields, but the definitions of those words is not always the same. Let me see if I can explain:

1. Science does not “prove” anything.

Proof is for mathematics, logic, or the law. Science, on the other hand, attempts to understand and model the natural world to the extent that humans are able to observe phenomena. Science can reliably and repeatedly test hypotheses, but that does not prove anything. If something is measurable enough and universal enough, it can be a physical law.

2. “Facts” are the basic building blocks of science, not the end result.

Facts (or observations) are foundational to science. For example, someone may note that my shirt is red and then see that my wife’s shirt is red. A hypothesis (or theory) can then be tested regarding shirts: “All shirts are red”. An experiment is conducted to collect more data regarding this hypothesis at a local clothing store. It is determined by observation of shirts at the store that, indeed, all shirts are not red. The facts in this study began with two observed red shirts, which led to a hypothesis, which led to a conclusion.

3. Saying “it is just a theory” is not disparaging nor does it in any way diminish what it is you are talking about.

The model of the atom is the best illustration of this that I can think of. Do you remember this one:

or this: or this:

Maybe not, especially the last one, but they are all “true” theoretical representations of the structure of an atom. As the ability of science to observe has improved, so have the models of the natural world (note how the models are refined through time from left to right). This does not make the first one false, just superceded by a more accurate model of the same thing. Science is extremely rigid in its definitions, and most everything “only” has a maximum potential to be a well-tested theory. I would venture to guess that the structure of the atom will always be a theory and not governed/defined as a physical law.

4. Science has no “-ism”s or Science does not “believe” in anything, excepting its empirical methodology.

While scientists are certainly passionate about what they do, they do not “believe” in what they study beyond the bounds of what is shown through the scientific method. It is not a belief system. The world we live in today would be radically different without the scientific method to help us uncover how the natural world works and how we humans can manipulate the mechanisms of the world to our benefit (eg. medicine, air travel, etc.). While we can appreciate those contributions, there are few that would claim that science is the end of knowledge.

5. Science is not the only pathway to obtain truth.

The rigorous framework of the scientific method is both the greatest strength and the greatest limitation to science. Science does not intend to be able to discover all truth**. There is truth in art, literature, philosophy, religion, etc. that are all (I argue) beyond the capabilities of science to discover. Even within scientific fields, there are theories of phenomena that can not be tested by any currently known method (eg. string theory). Those theories, since they do not meet the criteria of testability/falsifiability, are not scientific theories, but philosophical until such time as they can be tested and reliably observed.

Hopefully, this post will help clear up confusion when it comes to talking about science and what it can “prove” and what it “claims as fact” and in quelling accusations that scientists are rabid believers in some scientific religion. We now return this blog to its regularly scheduled programming.

*As wonky as Wikipedia is, this is actually a very nicely detailed explanation of the scientific method.

**Some would argue with this point. All I can say is, there is more to those chemical reactions in your head when you appreciate fine art or a nice jazz piece than the sum of its parts. Good luck quantifying it.


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