OK, so what is science?

by Deb on June 18, 2009

There is a huge body of science philosophy and history that addresses this question.  This is not part of it.  This blog is aimed at parents, not scientists and philosophers, so I’m not going to throw words like falsifiability* around too much. 

I’ve seen it claimed that science is on a par with religions, that it is a belief system.  It absolutely is not.  A lot of facts have been discovered through scientific enquiry, but they are different to beliefs because they are based on evidence that can be tested.  And even though it has discovered a lot of facts, and uses a lot of facts, that isn’t what science is.  Science is a process of enquiry, a way of learning about the world.

A lot is also made about ‘The Scientific Method’ and this isn’t really right either.  It’s very simplistic, because it reduces what scientists do to a type of recipe.  In practice there are two parts to scientific enquiry – the creative thought to come up with a possible explanation, then the rigorous testing to see if the theory works.  It is all grounded in nature, what is possible, what fits with the evidence and the work that came before.  And the testing has to be robust, repeatable, as strong as possible so we can be confident that what we are learning is right. 

So simply, science is a way of learning about the natural world that is based on a commitment to clear, testable evidence and logic.  It is about questioning everything, even your own results and especially your own thoughts.  It is about being able to fit things together with what you think you already know, but being ready to abandon those thoughts if the new things you have learnt don’t fit.  It can be said that scientists spend most of their time being wrong, but that’s the fun bit because it leads to new things to think about.

So for parents there are two things we need to do for our potential future scientists, that will be useful for anyone going into any field.  The first is to teach them to question and test, something that hasn’t always been encouraged.  And if that worries you, and you think that too much questioning could be bad, you’re right.  But science is about disciplined and controlled questioning, questioning that fits within the framework of what is already known and then tests the answers, not questioning for the sake of it.  So as parents we need to help our children understand that framework.  Because that’s the second thing we need to do, help our little ones learn as much about the world around them as they can.  I think most parents will agree that’s just a matter of letting them loose!

 

 

 

* Just in case you’re wondering, falisfiability means that it can be tested and found to be wrong.  If it can’t be tested, it’s not science – this is why creation myths (including ID) are not scientific, they don’t allow us to make predictions that can be tested.  If it can’t be wrong, it’s not science – this is why Freud is not scientific, he could explain everything.  Incidentally, not being able to be tested right now with the resources we currently have is not a problem, some great technological inventions have been because someone wanted to test a prediction so they invented a new way to do it.  You should see the toys quantum physicists play with.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Coran June 18, 2009 at 10:32 pm

Good summary. I think more fundamental than testing is observation. Observations give us questions and our observations inform, falsify or support the answer we come up with.

I’ve heard people say that something like the theory of evolution isn’t scientific because it can’t be tested in an experiment – it would take too long. Leaving aside the fact that it has been observed in experiments, I say “So what?”. An experiment is simply an observation where you control the variables.

The fact we can’t bury a skeleton and fold it through the earth’s crust fr 200 million years doesn’t negate our observation of fossils, or our theory that they’re the remains of ancient life forms, or the predictions that theory makes about further observations we might make.

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Deb June 18, 2009 at 10:48 pm

Thanks, Coran. You’re right, observation has to come first, because we have to have something to make theories about.

Incidentally, it’s a common misconception that evolutionary theory doesn’t test predictions. It does, just not about what is going to evolve into what. Because it is a theory about relationships, it can make predictions based on those. For example, I can predict that chimps and humans will have more similar blood chemistry than humans and crayfish, because they have a closer common ancestor to have inherited that blood chemistry from. This is the same as saying you will be more like your brother than you are like your third cousin fifteen times removed. And that prediction has been tested and shown to be correct. Other theories about the development of life cannot make these predictions – if life was created by ‘The Great Token Stringer’ (to copy Stephen Jay Gould) then he could put any blood chemistry he wanted in any animal. There is no reason to expect (ie predict) that humans would be like chimps. In fact many of our common sense expectations about living things are actually testable predictions of evolutionary theory.

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