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Scientific Perspectives

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A Scientific View of the World

What would be a scientific view of the world ?

It could be said that the scientific view of the world is based on proven answers to specific questions. "How old are recently identified fossils? What are the consequences of mutations in a certain gene? How does the endocrine system help maintain homeostasis?" These are questions in which definite answers can be sought. These answers help expand the scientific view of the world. Questions that cannot be answered with definitive answers, questions that cannot be proved with evidence, are not based on science. The scientific view of the world would not include answers to such questions.

A Scientific View of the World

Science is based on the analysis of things that humans can observe either by themselves through their senses, or by using special equipment. Science therefore cannot explain anything about the natural world that is beyond what is observable by current means. The term supernatural refers to entities, events, or powers regarded as being beyond nature, in that such things cannot be explained by scientific means. They are not measurable or observable in the same way the natural world is, and so considered to be outside the realm of scientific examination.

When a natural occurrence which was once considered supernatural is understood in the terms of natural causes and consequences, it has a scientific explanation. For example, the flickering lights sometimes seen hovering over damp ground on still evenings or nights are commonly called Will-o'-the-wisp . This phenomena looks like a lamp or flame, and is sometimes said to move away if approached. A great deal of folklore surrounds the legend, such as the belief that the lights are lost souls or fairies attempting to lead travelers astray. However, science has offered several potential explanations for Will-o'-the-wisp from burning marsh gases to glowing fungi, or animals that glow in a similar way to lightning bugs.

When trying to answer scientific questions, there is no fixed set of steps that scientists always follow and there is no single path that leads to scientific knowledge. There are, however, certain features of science that give it a very specific fashion of investigating. You do not have to be a professional scientist to think like a scientist. Everyone, including you, can use certain features of scientific thinking to think critically about issues and situations in everyday life.

Science assumes that the universe is a vast single system in which the basic rules are the same, and thus nature, and what happens in nature, can be understood. Things that are learned from studying one part of the universe can be applied to other parts of the universe. For example, the same principles of motion and gravitation that explain the motion of falling objects on Earth also explain the orbit of the planets around the sun, and galaxies, as shown in the Figure below . As discussed below, as more and more information and knowledge is collected and understood, scientific ideas can change. And even though scientific knowledge usually stands the test of time, it cannot answer all questions.

With some changes over the years, similar principles of motion have applied to different situations. The same scientific principles that help explain planetary orbits can be applied to the movement of a Ferris wheel.

Nature Can Be Understood

Science presumes that events in the universe happen in patterns that can be understood by careful study. Scientists believe that through the use of the mind, and with the help of instruments that extend the human senses, people can discover patterns in all of nature that can help us understand life, the world and the universe.

Scientists think of nature as a single system controlled by natural laws. By discovering natural laws, scientists strive to increase their understanding of the natural world. Laws of nature are expressed as scientific laws. A scientific law is a statement that describes what always happens under certain conditions in nature.

An example of a scientific law is the law of gravity, which was discovered by Sir Isaac Newton (see Figure below ). The law of gravity states that objects always fall towards Earth because of the pull of gravity. Based on this law, Newton could explain many natural events. He could explain not only why objects such as apples always fall to the ground, but he could also explain why the moon orbits Earth. Isaac Newton discovered laws of motion as well as the law of gravity. His laws of motion allowed him to explain why objects move as they do.

Did Newton discover the law of gravity when an apple fell from a tree and hit him on the head? Probably not, but observations of nature are often the starting point for new ideas about the natural world.

Scientific Ideas Can Change

Science is a process for developing knowledge. Change in knowledge about the natural world is expected because new observations may challenge the existing understanding of nature. No matter how well one theory explains a set of observations, it is possible that another theory may fit just as well or better, or may fit a still wider range of observations. In science, the testing and improving of theories goes on all the time. Scientists know that even if there is no way to gain complete knowledge about something, an increasingly accurate understanding of nature will develop over time.

The ability of scientists to make more accurate predictions about the natural world, from determining how the smallest living organisms develop antibiotic resistance to how "non-living" viruses continue to evolve, from how a cancerous tumor develops its own blood supply to how mutations lead to cancer and other diseases, from trying to predict earthquakes to calculating the orbit of an asteroid, provides evidence that scientists are gaining an understanding of how the world works.

Scientific Knowledge Can Stand the Test of Time

Continuity and stability are as much characteristics of science as change is. Although scientists accept some uncertainty as part of nature, most scientific knowledge stands the test of time. A changing of ideas, rather than a complete rejection of the ideas, is the usual practice in science. Powerful ideas about nature tend to survive, grow more accurate and become more widely accepted.

For example, in developing the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein did not throw out Issac Newton’s laws of motion but rather, he showed them to be only a small part of the bigger, cosmic picture. That is, the Newtonian laws of motion have limited use within our more general concept of the universe. For example, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) uses the Newtonian laws of motion to calculate the flight paths of satellites and space vehicles.

The theory of evolution by natural selection is a classic example of a biological theory that has withstood the test of time. Developed over 150 years ago, myriad data has been identified to support Charles Darwin's theory. So far, no scientific information has been uncovered to contradict or counteract this scientific theory.

Science Cannot Offer Answers to All Questions

There are many things that cannot be examined in a scientific way. There are, for instance, beliefs that cannot be proved or disproved, such as the existence of supernatural powers, supernatural beings, or the meaning of life. In other cases, a scientific approach to a question and a scientific answer may be rejected by people who hold to certain beliefs.

Scientists do not have the means to settle moral questions surrounding good and evil, or love and hate, although they can sometimes contribute to the discussion of such issues by identifying the likely reasons for certain actions by humans and the possible consequences of these actions.

Vocabulary

  • science : A distinctive way of learning about the natural world through observation, inquiry, formulating and testing hypotheses, gathering and analyzing data, and reporting and evaluating findings.
  • scientific law : A principle which can be used to predict the behavior of the natural world.
  • scientist : An individual who uses the scientific method; a person who engages in a systematic activity to acquire knowledge.

Summary

  • Science is based on the analysis of things that humans can observe either by themselves through their senses, or by using special equipment. Science therefore cannot explain anything about the natural world that is beyond what is observable by current means. Supernatural things cannot be explained by scientific means.

Practice

Use this resource to answer the question that follows.

  1. Summarize the principles of biologist's E.O. Wilson's presentation.

Review

  1. What makes someone a "scientist?"
  2. Describe a scientific law.
  3. What is meant by nature can be understood ?
  4. Discuss why science cannot answer all questions.

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