Posted by: W. E. Poplaski | June 13, 2008

Science

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Science & Society: freshman university course

 

Student: This is why I think the Bible should be taught in biology classes.  Science is about facts, right?  Well, I believe that the Bible is factual and it describes the origin of life.  Therefore, it should be taught in science class.

 

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I can understand how that student came to think in that way.  High school biology textbooks get bigger every year, but the number of classroom hours stays fairly constant.  Teachers just barely have enough time to talk about the facts and concepts of biology so sometimes the methodology of science gets a short shrift.  However, his understanding of the nature of science is very wrong.

 

So, what is science?  Science is an empirical process.  It’s a style of thinking based on experimentation and observation.    Science is not defined by the ‘facts’ it uncovers, but rather by the methodology used to uncover those facts. Theologians have their own methodology; art critics have their own methodology.  Scientists also have their own methodology; it’s called the scientific method.  (Moreover, the various disciplines of science each have some variation on the scientific method specific to that discipline.)  

 

Although it might be interesting to compare and contrast the biblical and scientific descriptions of the origin of humans in the same course, a science course is not the place to do it.  (Perhaps a philosophy course is a better place for that discussion.) 

 

A science course would attempt to evaluate the biblical description of man’s origin by examining the Bible’s data, and inferences from its data, in the light of its experimental design.  As the biblical description of man’s origin is not based on experimentation, a science course would not be able to proceed.  Now, that is not to say the inability to evaluate the Bible scientifically proves the correctness of evolution.  It just means that it is not useful to describe the Bible in science courses.

 

However, the concepts of evolution were developed through science.  Therefore, every empirical inference about evolution is fair game for scientific analysis.  What scientists ‘know’ about evolution, or any other scientific concept, was derived through experimentation and observation.

 

Jose Wudka, a professor of physics at the University of California—Riverside has a website that gives a good description of science and the scientific method:

 

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http://phyun5.ucr.edu/~wudka/Physics7/Notes_www/node5.html#SECTION02120000000000000000 —“Science is best defined as a careful, disciplined, logical search for knowledge about any and all aspects of the universe, obtained by examination of the best available evidence and always subject to correction and improvement upon discovery of better evidence. What’s left is magic. And it doesn’t work. — James Randi

 

It took a long while to determine how the world is better investigated. One way is to just talk about it (for example Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, stated that males and females have different number of teeth, without bothering to check; he then provided long arguments as to why this is the way things ought to be). This method is unreliable: arguments cannot determine whether a statement is correct, this requires proofs.

 

A better approach is to do experiments and perform careful observations. The results of this approach are universal in the sense that they can be reproduced by any skeptic. It is from these ideas that the scientific method was developed. Most of science is based on this procedure for studying Nature.”

 

Also, see—What is the “scientific method”?  

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I would not go so far as James Randi in saying that what’s left is necessarily “magic”; it’s simply not a product of science—it could be poetry, history, magic or whatever, but not science.  Again, science is a powerful style of thinking, but it is not the only way to think (e.g., mathematical analysis is equally powerful—but it is not empirical and so it is not science.  However, it is highly compatible with science and an important—if not essential—tool of many scientific investigations).

 

 

Scientific thinking is a type of dialectical thinking.  This can be seen by examining scientific papers published in journals.  Typically, these papers include sections labeled: background, materials & methods, data, discussion and conclusion.  This fits in with the thesis-antithesis-synthesis scheme of dialectical thought.  The ‘background’ section  corresponds to the thesis; it describes the present state of knowledge on the paper’s topic before the experiment.  The ‘materials & method’ and ‘data’ sections correspond to the antithesis; they describe the new knowledge derived from the experiment.  The ‘discussion’ and ‘conclusion’ sections correspond to the synthesis; they relate the inferences of the antithesis to the thesis resulting in improved understanding of the subject matter.

 

The quality of scientific thinking is highly dependent upon experimental design—a poorly designed experiment (e.g., one with inadequate controls) will result in shoddy scientific thought. Good experimental designs are controlled in that they maintain constant conditions for all relevant variables except those involved in the experiment.  This allows the scientist to unambiguously decide if his or her hypothesis should be rejected or not.

 

R. M. Mottola provides an easy to understand introduction to experimental design at this link: http://liutaiomottola.com/myth/expdesig.html

 

One last point about experimental design, R.A. Fisher is probably the man most responsible for making experimental design an indispensable tool of the scientist. You can read about him here:

http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Fisher.html

 

 

Also, Dr. Railsback of the University of Georgia has an excellent website describing ‘What Science Is’:

http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/railsback_1122science1.html

 

 

 

 

 

 


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