THE NATURE OF MODERN SCIENCE & SCIENTIFIC
Dr. Martin Nickels
Anthropology Program, Illinois State University
I. THE GOAL & REALM OF MODERN SCIENCE
Modern science endeavors to understand and explain how the
NATURAL world works and how it got to be the way that it is,
NOT merely to collect "facts" about, or simply describe,
the different parts of the natural world.
"Natural" here refers to EMPIRICAL or "sensible,"
that is, only that which we can detect--somehow--with our senses
and for which there is usually widespread agreement. Another
sense of "natural" is that it entails explanations
that are detailed, precise and possess predictive power.
Keep in mind that the fringes of the natural world or realm
can be somewhat fuzzy. Science is nonetheless LIMITED to the
study of the natural world and cannot study or explain "supernatural"
or metaphysical events or beings which is not to say they
may not exist!
II. THE UNCERTAINTY & LIMITS OF SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE
In addition to being limited to studying the natural world,
scientific knowledge (especially at the level of explanation)
is limited by being inherently UNCERTAIN to varying degrees,
that is, NOT absolutely, eternally and infallibly TRUE. This
"built-in" or intrinsic uncertainty is due in part
to the following assumptions and limitations:
Some Assumptions of Scientific Knowledge:
A. THE WORLD IS REAL. In other words, the physical universe
exists apart from our sensory perception of it.
B. HUMANS CAN ACCURATELY PERCEIVE AND UNDERSTAND the physical
universe. In other words, we can learn correctly how the natural
world works and operates.
C. Empirically-accessible processes (that is NATURAL PROCESSES)
are SUFFICIENT to explain or account for natural phenomena or
events. In other words, scientists must explain the natural in
terms of the natural.
D. Scientists ASSUME THAT NATURE "OPERATES" UNIFORMLY
in both space and time (unless we have evidence to the contrary)
in order to arrive at conclusions that have general applicability
and utility. (This is known as the PRINCIPLE OF UNIFORMITY.)
Some Limitations of Scientific Knowledge:
E. Since our scientific knowledge is based only on human sensory
experience of the natural world, it is subject to the BIOLOGICAL
LIMITATIONS OF OUR SENSES. For example, we cannot "see"
either infrared or ultraviolet light and we cannot hear extremely
high or low sounds. While improved technology has clearly enhanced
our senses, there are still limits to technological accuracy
F. The intrinsic or unconscious mental processing of our sensory
data is rooted in
our previous experiences and can result in either INACCURATE
or BIASED PERCEPTIONS of the world. For example, it has been
said that we "see" with our minds, not our our eyes
despite the common notion that we see things "objectively".
G. It is impossible to know if we have thought of EVERY POSSIBLE
ALTERNATIVE EXPLANATION and virtually impossible to control for
EVERY POSSIBLE VARIABLE.
H. Scientific knowledge is necessarily CONTINGENT KNOWLEDGE
(and therefore uncertain), rather than absolute knowledge (which
is certain and eternally true). There are at least two reasons
1. Scientific knowledge (including any given scientific explanation)
is based only on available EVIDENCE that MUST BE EVALUATED and
assessed (and is therefore subject to more than one possible
interpretation) rather than on "proof" (which is indisputable
2. The HISTORY of science DEMONSTRATES very clearly that SCIENTIFIC
KNOWLEDGE IS SUBJECT TO MODIFICATION in light of new evidence
and new ways of thinking. Indeed, the very questions and problems
that science regards important at any given time are reflective
of intellectual, sociological and political considerations that
change over time.
(**The double wording in this last sentence (item F above)
is NOT a mistake; it is a visual "trick" intended to
illustrate the idea of the sentence.)
It is extremely important to understand that despite the inherent
tentativeness or uncertainty of scientific explanations (and
perhaps to a lesser extent, descriptive "facts") SCIENTIFIC
KNOWLEDGE IS THE MOST RELIABLE KNOWLEDGE we can have about the
NATURAL world and how it works. This is because scientists have
developed a methodology for learning based on principles of CRITICAL
THINKING that can enhance or increase greatly the reliability
of scientific knowledge.
III. THE REAL "SCIENTIFIC METHOD": CRITICAL THINKING
A. Assumptions and current knowledge (even "facts")
are subject to regular
REVIEW and RE-ASSESSMENT--especially in light of new evidence.
B. Ideally, scientific observations and/or experimental results
INDEPENDENT DUPLICATION and confirmation by others in order to
gain credibility and acceptance.
C. Whenever possible, additional, INDEPENDENT DATA SETS are
supportive or corroborative evidence for an explanation. (Such
is termed CONCORDANT evidence.)
D. Scientific knowledge is PUBLIC KNOWLEDGE in that it is
scrutiny and study by anybody who cares to do so.
E. EXPERTISE in knowledge is highly regarded, but there is
no reliance on,
or recourse to, any absolute authority to determine "the
DANGER: BEWARE OF RELATIVISM!!
In the absence of certainty regarding the absolute truth of
scientific explanations, scientists use COMPARATIVE CRITICAL
THINKING to determine which explanation is MORE LIKELY TO BE
CORRECT WHEN COMPARED TO THE ALTERNATIVES.
Such a comparative approach to evaluating knowledge enables
one to avoid the pitfalls of "relativism" which is
the view that any and all explanations are equally valid or worthy
and that truth is merely a matter of opinion with there being
no way for one to determine which opinion or explanation is more
accurate, more likely to be correct, better supported and reasoned.
COMPARATIVE CRITICAL THINKING uses explicit CRITERIA (termed
"epistemic" criteria) to evaluate the merits of one
explanation compared to another. As already noted, ANY scientific
explanation MUST deal only with empirical (natural) data but
scientists consider one explanation BETTER than another the more
A. is consistent with known natural processes;
B. accounts for more data (especially separate, independent data
C. has more reliable or greater predictive power;
D. accounts for previously unexplained or puzzling phenomena;
E. has fewer anomalies or exceptions left unexplained;
F. is simpler and less complicated (Occam's Razor); and
G. provides a fertile field for further research.
Since we can only compare the explanations (theories) we know
about (or have thought of!) at a given point in time, we can
never safely conclude that we have determined the one absolutely
"best" or "true" explanation because we can
never be certain that someone in the future won't develop a completely
new theory that is even better than our "best" efforts
But by engaging in the comparative evaluation and assessment
of alternative available explanations, modern science has developed
a powerful and effective method for dealing with the uncertainty
inherent in our scientific knowledge.
In at least one sense, the history of science is a record
of our scientific efforts to REDUCE THE DEGREE OF UNCERTAINTY
associated with our knowledge and understanding of how the natural
world works and how it got to be the way that it is. In this
sense then, by eliminating faulty or incorrect explanations,
science can be said to "progress" and our confidence
in some specific scientific knowledgeindeed, in the entire
scientific process--can increase.
IV. SOME FORMS OF SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE
FACT: a confirmed or, at least, agreed-upon empirical
observation (or conclusion if referring to an "inferred"
Scientific facts, even what appear to be simple observations,
are themselves embedded in or rooted in the theories the observer
HYPOTHESIS: a proposed explanation of certain "facts"
that must be empirically testable in some conceivable fashion.
A scientific hypothesis is really not proven true or correct;
rather, it is either rejected (or "falsified") because
it is determined to be inconsistent with the data, or, if not
rejected, regarded as being "provisionally true" and
kept as a working hypothesis to be used until found to be faulty
in light of new evidence or further testing. Hypotheses that
have withstood numerous, rigorous tests and not found to be "false"
are often regarded as "facts" since they are effectively
beyond rational dispute.
THEORY: an integrated, comprehensive explanation of
many "facts" and an explanation capable of generating
additional hypotheses and testable predictions about the way
the natural world looks and works.
Scientific theories represent our best efforts to understand
and explain a variety of what appear to be interrelated natural
phenomena. Examples include the theory of relativity, cell theory,
plate tectonics theory ("continental drift") and the
theory of biological evolution through natural selection ("Darwinian"
and "neo-Darwinian" theory).
V. SOME SELECTED REFERENCES
Barbour, Ian 1997. Religion and Science: Historical and
Contemporary Issues. Harper, San Francisco.
Bauer, Henry H. 1992. Scientific Literacy and the Myth
of the Scientific Method. University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
Bronowski, Jacob 1973. Chap. 11 (Knowledge or Certainty) in
The Ascent of Man. Boston, Little, Brown.
Chalmers, A. F. 1982. What is This Thing Called Science?
2nd ed. University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Queensland,
Goldstein, Martin and Goldstein, Inge. F. 1978. How We
Know. Plenum, New York.
Kitcher, Philip 1982. Abusing Science. The MIT Press,
Kosso, Peter 1992. Reading the Book of Nature: An Introduction
to the Philosophy of Science. Cambridge University Press,
Longino, Helen 1990. Science as Social Knowledge: Values
and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton University
Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
Moore, John A. 1993. Science as a Way of Knowing. Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Nickels, Martin K., Nelson, Craig E. and Beard, Jean 1996.
"Better biology teaching by emphasizing evolution &
the nature of science." The American Biology Teacher
Wolpert, Lewis 1992. The Unnatural Nature of Science.
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
Ziman, John 1991. Reliable Knowledge: An Exploration of
the Grounds for Belief in Science. Cambridge University Press
(Canto Books), Cambridge, MA..
Acknowledgments: Special and heartfelt thanks
to Craig Nelson for his thoughtful contributions to the ideas
presented in this outline and to Kenton Machina for his suggestions