Science Demands Evidence
Sooner or later, the validity of scientific claims is settled by referring to observations of phenomena. Hence, scientists concentrate on getting accurate data. Such evidence is obtained by observations and measurements taken in situations that range from natural settings (such as a forest) to completely contrived ones (such as the laboratory). To make their observations, scientists use their own senses, instruments (such as microscopes) that enhance those senses, and instruments that tap characteristics quite different from what humans can sense (such as magnetic fields). Scientists observe passively (earthquakes, bird migrations), make collections (rocks, shells), and actively probe the world (as by boring into the earth's crust or administering experimental medicines).
In some circumstances, scientists can control conditions deliberately and precisely to obtain their evidence. They may, for example, control the temperature, change the concentration of chemicals, or choose which organisms mate with which others. By varying just one condition at a time, they can hope to identify its exclusive effects on what happens, uncomplicated by changes in other conditions. Often, however, control of conditions may be impractical (as in studying stars), or unethical (as in studying people), or likely to distort the natural phenomena (as in studying wild animals in captivity). In such cases, observations have to be made over a sufficiently wide range of naturally occurring conditions to infer what the influence of various factors might be. Because of this reliance on evidence, great value is placed on the development of better instruments and techniques of observation, and the findings of any one investigator or group are usually checked by others.
Science Is a Blend of Logic and Imagination
Although all sorts of imagination and thought may be used in coming up with hypotheses and theories, sooner or later scientific arguments must conform to the principles of logical reasoning—that is, to testing the validity of arguments by applying certain criteria of inference, demonstration, and common sense. Scientists may often disagree about the value of a particular piece of evidence, or about the appropriateness of particular assumptions that are made—and therefore disagree about what conclusions are justified. But they tend to agree about the principles of logical reasoning that connect evidence and assumptions with conclusions.
Scientists do not work only with data and well-developed theories. Often, they have only tentative hypotheses about the way things may be. Such hypotheses are widely used in science for choosing what data to pay attention to and what additional data to seek, and for guiding the interpretation of data. In fact, the process of formulating and testing hypotheses is one of the core activities of scientists. To be useful, a hypothesis should suggest what evidence would support it and what evidence would refute it. A hypothesis that cannot in principle be put to the test of evidence may be interesting, but it is not likely to be scientifically useful.
The use of logic and the close examination of evidence are necessary but not usually sufficient for the advancement of science. Scientific concepts do not emerge automatically from data or from any amount of analysis alone. Inventing hypotheses or theories to imagine how the world works and then figuring out how they can be put to the test of reality is as creative as writing poetry, composing music, or designing skyscrapers. Sometimes discoveries in science are made unexpectedly, even by accident. But knowledge and creative insight are usually required to recognize the meaning of the unexpected. Aspects of data that have been ignored by one scientist may lead to new discoveries by another.
Science Explains and Predicts
Scientists strive to make sense of observations of phenomena by constructing explanations for them that use, or are consistent with, currently accepted scientific principles. Such explanations—theories—may be either sweeping or restricted, but they must be logically sound and incorporate a significant body of scientifically valid observations. The credibility of scientific theories often comes from their ability to show relationships among phenomena that previously seemed unrelated. The theory of moving continents, for example, has grown in credibility as it has shown relationships among such diverse phenomena as earthquakes, volcanoes, the match between types of fossils on different continents, the shapes of continents, and the contours of the ocean floors.
The essence of science is validation by observation. But it is not enough for scientific theories to fit only the observations that are already known. Theories should also fit additional observations that were not used in formulating the theories in the first place; that is, theories should have predictive power. Demonstrating the predictive power of a theory does not necessarily require the prediction of events in the future. The predictions may be about evidence from the past that has not yet been found or studied. A theory about the origins of human beings, for example, can be tested by new discoveries of human-like fossil remains. This approach is clearly necessary for reconstructing the events in the history of the earth or of the life forms on it. It is also necessary for the study of processes that usually occur very slowly, such as the building of mountains or the aging of stars. Stars, for example, evolve more slowly than we can usually observe. Theories of the evolution of stars, however, may predict unsuspected relationships between features of starlight that can then be sought in existing collections of data about stars.
Scientists Try to Identify and Avoid Bias
When faced with a claim that something is true, scientists respond by asking what evidence supports it. But scientific evidence can be biased in how the data are interpreted, in the recording or reporting of the data, or even in the choice of what data to consider in the first place. Scientists' nationality, sex, ethnic origin, age, political convictions, and so on may incline them to look for or emphasize one or another kind of evidence or interpretation. For example, for many years the study of primates—by male scientists—focused on the competitive social behavior of males. Not until female scientists entered the field was the importance of female primates' community-building behavior recognized.
Bias attributable to the investigator, the sample, the method, or the instrument may not be completely avoidable in every instance, but scientists want to know the possible sources of bias and how bias is likely to influence evidence. Scientists want, and are expected, to be as alert to possible bias in their own work as in that of other scientists, although such objectivity is not always achieved. One safeguard against undetected bias in an area of study is to have many different investigators or groups of investigators working in it.
Science Is Not Authoritarian
It is appropriate in science, as elsewhere, to turn to knowledgeable sources of information and opinion, usually people who specialize in relevant disciplines. But esteemed authorities have been wrong many times in the history of science. In the long run, no scientist, however famous or highly placed, is empowered to decide for other scientists what is true, for none are believed by other scientists to have special access to the truth. There are no preestablished conclusions that scientists must reach on the basis of their investigations.
In the short run, new ideas that do not mesh well with mainstream ideas may encounter vigorous criticism, and scientists investigating such ideas may have difficulty obtaining support for their research. Indeed, challenges to new ideas are the legitimate business of science in building valid knowledge. Even the most prestigious scientists have occasionally refused to accept new theories despite there being enough accumulated evidence to convince others. In the long run, however, theories are judged by their results: When someone comes up with a new or improved version that explains more phenomena or answers more important questions than the previous version, the new one eventually takes its place. Top button