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What is science?

This presentation is an explanation of the definition of science and some principles of the philosophy of science. It is written for college-level non-science majors or introductory college level science courses.

Katherine LaCommare

on 13 March 2013

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Transcript of What is science?

What is Science? In this course, our starting place has to be understanding science. Science is a process that allows us to understand the world around us. It isn't a belief, but a mechanism that allows us to gather evidence through which we learn about the natural world. One of my goals for this semester, is that you walk away from this class with a better understanding of the nature and process of science. How can we understand an environmental system? So what is science? Natural? But doesn't science also deal with chemicals? How science Is done (process)? Do you picture science as an orderly process, a process that produces an answer and brings the scientist money and fame?

Well, this is a pretty simplified picture of science. You will -
Read the "How Science Works" section of the Understanding Science website. Answer the lab questions. For your lab assignment, Learning Objectives:
Recall and understand the definition of science.
Describe the assumptions of this definition.
Describe the process of science.
Define and write a hypothesis.
Define theory and natural.
Compare and contrast discovery and experimental science.
Explain why the scientific method is a simplified presentation of science (also lab). Are you curious about discovery science? An example of discovery science is the work that Jane Goodall did with the Chimpanzees in Africa.

Jane Goodall went to Africa when she was 19. She was armed with little more than a notebook and pencil. Within 6 months, she discovered that Chimpanzees used and made tools and ate meat. Within the first year, she had developed a lifetime's worth of scientific questions and testable hypotheses. This is discovery science. So what is experimental science? Your are likely to recognize experimental science as the scientific method. Experimental science starts with a question and then a hypothesis which is followed by an experiment designed to test that hypothesis. Recognizing questions and hypotheses: An important aspect to understanding the nature of science is understanding questions and hypotheses.
Questions are quite simply questions.
How fast do horses run in comparison to dogs?
Does carbon dioxide absorb certain wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum?
Are statements that make predictions and are testable with measurable data.
Horses run faster than dogs.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbs infrared radiation (heat).
Nitrates in Lake Lansing increases the concentration of algae. Is there a difference between a hypothesis and a theory? YES! A hypothesis is proposed explanation for a narrowly defined problem. For example: how fast dogs run in comparison to horses.

A theory, on the other hand, is a generally accepted explanation for a whole set phenomena.

Scientists often refer to theory with a capital T when discussing scientific theories. Scientific theories address a wide array of phenomena and are supported by a tremendous amount of evidence. They are firmly accepted explanations for a set of phenomena.

A great and often misunderstood example of a theory is the Theory of Natural Selection. The Theory of Natural Selection explains genetic adaptations and changes in genetic patterning in species over time for all species on the planet. It is not "just a theory." Well, we can define it as “a process for producing data or evidence by observing natural phenomena.”

But this definition includes a few assumptions and terms that need to be clarified:
First this definition assumes that the world is knowable.
It is predicated on the idea that we can learn about it through observation and logic.
It also assumes that the world behaves in predictable ways.
By predictable, we mean that if A happens, then B will happen.

As a process, science allows the scientist (or anybody else) to ask questions, propose hypotheses, to test hypotheses by recording observations, searching for testable evidence and conducting experiments. This process can be discovery oriented - collect data and then come up with an hypothesis (discovery science) - or experimentally oriented - test a hypothesis with an experiment (experimental science). Logic plays a key role in deciphering and making sense of collected observations (data). Science in reality Before moving on to look a little bit closer at the process of science, let's look at the term "natural". It can be quite confusing. Understanding it is paramount to understanding the nature of science and the limits of science.

In the definition of science, natural means everything in the universe that wouldn't fall under the concept of supernatural.

So yes, DDT, atrazine, a computer chip are all natural. They fall under the laws of nature.

Ghosts, God, metaphysical phenomena are supernatural and don't fall under the laws of nature. These things, therefore, can't be properly understood through science. For example, over the past 200 years, our understanding of the role that atmospheric gases play in the earth's climate has gotten more and more sophisticated. This understanding started in 1830 with the question - how do different gases contribute to the earth's climate?. Our first "answer" to this question was our recognition that certain gases - like carbon dioxide (CO2) "absorb" and "trap" infrared radiation (heat) and others do not. Since that time, scientists have slowly unraveled the complexities of the role our atmosphere plays in our fluctuating climate and the role of atmospheric gases. Along the way, we have realized that humans play a role in this dance. In reality, science is not an orderly process. When doing science, it feels like this. It starts with a big idea, observation or question. Hypotheses are formulated. But, it may take years to get to the bottom of the original idea because science is an iterative process in which successive observations lead back to the same questions, but at deeper and deeper levels. This process may lead us down unexpected paths. Logic and data (observations) are the underpinnings of scientific the process which revolves around producing evidence by testing ideas. Testing ideas is central to the process. It is the job of science to collect all of the plausible explanations to a phenomenon and to use scientific testing to filter through them, retaining ideas that are supported by the evidence and discarding the others. For example, Louis Leaky, a famous anthropologist, funded Jane Goodall's early research. He was interested in the big question - what makes us human? At the time, it was thought that only humans made and used tools. Well, in the first 6-months of her research, Ms. Goodall discovered Chimpanzees making and using tools to hunt and eat termites. This example illustrates how evidence can result in an alteration of a hypothesis. Logic is central to testing ideas. You can think of scientific testing as occurring in two logical steps: (1) if the idea is correct, what would we expect to see, and (2) does that expectation match what we actually observe? Ideas are supported when actual observations (i.e., results) match expected observations and are contradicted when they do not match. Hypothesis: Tool use is a uniquely human trait.
Expectation: Tool use won't be found in the animal kingdom (outside humans).
Observation: Chimpanzees use tools.
New Hypothesis: Tool use is a unique trait to primates.
New Expectation: Only primates will be found to use tools.
New Observation: Crows use tools, dolphins use tools etc.
New Hypothesis/Theory: Tool use is wide-spread through the animal kingdom.
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