and Scientific Knowledge
THE NATURE OF MODERN SCIENCE & SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE
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:
Some Limitations of Scientific Knowledge:
(**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
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 it...
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 today.
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" fact).
Scientific facts, even what appear to be simple observations, are themselves embedded in or rooted in the theories the observer holds.
HYPOTHESIS: a proposed explanation of certain "facts" that must be empirically testable in some conceivable fashion. (Plural: "hypotheses.")
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, Australia.
Goldstein, Martin and Goldstein, Inge. F. 1978. How We Know. Plenum, New York.
Kitcher, Philip 1982. Abusing Science. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Kosso, Peter 1992. Reading the Book of Nature: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA.
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 58 (6):332-336.
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 and comments.