Family Science Club

Pointing to the Author of Science

 

Families learning about 3-D space, 2013

Image: Families learning about 3-D space, 2013, taken by Kevin Weaver

What is Science? (November 2015)

In a recent letter to the editors of National Geographic, a gentleman wrote that "the failure to accept the primacy of science" is one of three elements that will likely lead to the destruction of the ancient culture of Syria. We continue to hear claims from some quarters that embracing science will lead to the salvation of the human race. Certainly the people who support that drastic governmental action is needed to stop a climate catastrophe claim time and again that those who disagree with them are denying science, at everyone's peril.

So then, just what is science? Does science, per se have such power to bring good? Would the rejection of the "primacy of science" result in the doom of a culture, or even the human race? Can science hold primacy, and if so, primacy of what?

In discussions of things that lead to good or evil, to societal growth or disaster, definitions matter. We need to have a common understanding of what we are discussing. Otherwise, it is too easy for some people to trip up others by using key words to mean different things in different places, while hiding the fact that the changes take place. And, of course, discussions about potential disaster are the ones where it is most likely that people on at least one side of the issue will use subtle and dishonest word plays to their advantage. We must be on our guard.

That said, the basic definition of science describes a way of increasing human knowledge about the world we live in. It is an approach to investigating how things are now, and the cause-and-effect relationships that bring about changes. A scientist is a person who uses the scientific approach to study a particular thing, to find out more about what it is, what changes it, and how it changes other things.

By this definition, for example, Sir Isaac Newton practiced science before he turned twelve, maybe before he turned eight. How could that be? Because he observed things, came up with ideas, experimented, and adjusted his ideas based on the results of his experiments. It may have been very simplistic science at that stage of his life, but it was science.

By comparison, I (Kevin Weaver) can attest that I did almost no science during my entire time in public schools, including my two years in the engineering program at Penn State University. I learned a lot about science, but I did not do any science. Why do I believe that? We learned from books and did canned experiments in which we already knew what the outcomes would be. I do not remember a single time in which we were encouraged to come up with a theory to test on our own, or given a chance to adjust and try a different approach if something did not turn out as expected.

I know that if I had stayed with engineering, I would have eventually been given assignments where I would have to actually do science on my own. My friends who went into chemistry and other scientific fields in collage did, eventually. As it was, I merely followed scientific topics as a hobby for most of my time as a child and young adult. I was in my mid-twenties before I really started to experiment with things. That was partly because I was starting to learn that a significant amount of what I had been taught (and believed at the time) might actually be incorrect. I realized that to find the truth on these issues, I would have to investigate, research, and experiment on my own.

Why is this important? Because, by definition, science is a way to get at the truth of what is, of what works. Our children should be taught to weigh the evidence carefully, experiment on their own a bit, and then either confirm their initial idea or change it and try again. They should even be taught how to test and verify if the scientific method is itself good and accurate, and for which questions it can give trustworthy results. At least, that is what they should be taught if we really believed in the primacy of science.

In later essays we will take up the issue of what science can do...