Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Nature of Science

 Note: This program first aired on January 12, 2012.

What is science? How do we know what we know (or think we know)? Most of us encountered the venerable “Scientific Method” at some point in our schooling, but what does that really mean, and is it how science really works? What are the assumptions we must make about knowledge and how we get it, assumptions that make knowledge actually meaningful. Does science have any limits? I bring these questions up in the context of this program because most of what we talk about here is based in and has been revealed through science.

More than anything else, science is a way of seeing and interacting with and understanding the world. It is a mind set and a way of thinking. It seeks clarity and articulation. Science is simply trying to explain the world around us, using patterns to construct an architechture of explanation, a beautiful lattice of ideas that connect one aspect of the world to the next. The idea that the world is indeed knowable is fundamental to the nature of science. We have to believe that we can learn things about the world to embark on a journey of scientific knowledge. Related to this is the idea that science is limited to knowledge of the natural world, a world we can experience through our senses; I see this, I hear this, I smell this. Ultimately our observations must be testable, quantifiable and repeatable. For example I can simply believe in the tooth fairy, but to support the theory of her existence in the natural world I would need to see her every time I lost a tooth, and other people would as well.

We are all born scientists. You watch the world, you notice something.
“Hmm that was interesting. I wonder if that happened for a reason or was just a coincidence?” That is the essence of science right there, asking questions and trying to separate the patterns from the coincidences. If what we observed is part of a pattern, it means we can make a prediction about what will happen in the future. If the effect we noticed is real, we can predict the effect will happen again if we create the same circumstances. If we keep creating the same circumstances and keep getting the same effect, we can establish knowledge of a relationship between one thing (the effect) and another (the circumstances in which the effect happens). We’ve just learned something about the natural world, or at least, we think we learned something. That’s the thing about science, it can never stop. We have to keep pushing and probing the nature of our question, ultimately trying to prove ourselves wrong. In doing so expand the boundaries and hone the edges.

When we can’t demonstrate that our predictions are wrong, it lends credence to the idea that they may be right; what we observed and our reasons that explain the observation may indeed be correct. But here’s the rub: That’s as close as we get; I might be right, I’m probably right, I’ve looked and looked and there is no evidence that says I am wrong. The closest we get to “knowing” is making accurate predictions. So you must take the headlines about this new scientific finding or that new scientific finding with a kernel of understanding, and rather than feel cynical when months later said headline falls from favor and is quote “proven” wrong, you should embrace the finding as part and parcel of our ongoing and constantly revising attempts to understand the world we live in.


 Great stuff from the Indiana University Evolution and the Nature of Science Institutes

From the American Association for the Advancement of Science: