Chapter 1: THE NATURE OF SCIENCE
Over the course of human history, people have developed many interconnected and validated ideas about the physical, biological, psychological, and social worlds. Those ideas have enabled successive generations to achieve an increasingly comprehensive and reliable understanding of the human species and its environment. The means used to develop these ideas are particular ways of observing, thinking, experimenting, and validating. These ways represent a fundamental aspect of the nature of science and reflect how science tends to differ from other modes of knowing.
It is the union of science, mathematics, and technology that forms the scientific endeavor and that makes it so successful. Although each of these human enterprises has a character and history of its own, each is dependent on and reinforces the others. Accordingly, the first three chapters of recommendations draw portraits of science, mathematics, and technology that emphasize their roles in the scientific endeavor and reveal some of the similarities and connections among them.
This chapter lays out recommendations for what knowledge of the way science works is requisite for scientific literacy. The chapter focuses on three principal subjects: the scientific world view, scientific methods of inquiry, and the nature of the scientific enterprise. Chapters 2 and 3 consider ways in which mathematics and technology differ from science in general. Chapters 4 through 9 present views of the world as depicted by current science; Chapter 10, Historical Perspectives, covers key episodes in the development of science; and Chapter 11, Common Themes, pulls together ideas that cut across all these views of the world.
Scientists share certain basic beliefs and attitudes about what they do and how they view their work. These have to do with the nature of the world and what can be learned about it.
Science presumes that the things and events in the universe occur in consistent patterns that are comprehensible through careful, systematic study. Scientists believe that through the use of the intellect, and with the aid of instruments that extend the senses, people can discover patterns in all of nature.
Science also assumes that the universe is, as its name implies, a vast single system in which the basic rules are everywhere the same. Knowledge gained from studying one part of the universe is applicable to other parts. For instance, the same principles of motion and gravitation that explain the motion of falling objects on the surface of the earth also explain the motion of the moon and the planets. With some modifications over the years, the same principles of motion have applied to other forcesand to the motion of everything, from the smallest nuclear particles to the most massive stars, from sailboats to space vehicles, from bullets to light rays.
Science is a process for producing knowledge. The process depends both on making careful observations of phenomena and on inventing theories for making sense out of those observations. Change in knowledge is inevitable because new observations may challenge prevailing theories. 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 and occasional discarding of theories, whether new or old, go on all the time. Scientists assume that even if there is no way to secure complete and absolute truth, increasingly accurate approximations can be made to account for the world and how it works.
Although scientists reject the notion of attaining absolute truth and accept some uncertainty as part of nature, most scientific knowledge is durable. The modification of ideas, rather than their outright rejection, is the norm in science, as powerful constructs tend to survive and grow more precise and to become widely accepted. For example, in formulating the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein did not discard the Newtonian laws of motion but rather showed them to be only an approximation of limited application within a more general concept. (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration uses Newtonian mechanics, for instance, in calculating satellite trajectories.) Moreover, the growing ability of scientists to make accurate predictions about natural phenomena provides convincing evidence that we really are gaining in our understanding of how the world works. Continuity and stability are as characteristic of science as change is, and confidence is as prevalent as tentativeness.
There are many matters that cannot usefully be examined in a scientific way. There are, for instance, beliefs thatby their very naturecannot be proved or disproved (such as the existence of supernatural powers and beings, or the true purposes of life). In other cases, a scientific approach that may be valid is likely to be rejected as irrelevant by people who hold to certain beliefs (such as in miracles, fortune-telling, astrology, and superstition). Nor do scientists have the means to settle issues concerning good and evil, although they can sometimes contribute to the discussion of such issues by identifying the likely consequences of particular actions, which may be helpful in weighing alternatives.
Fundamentally, the various scientific disciplines are alike in their reliance on evidence, the use of hypothesis and theories, the kinds of logic used, and much more. Nevertheless, scientists differ greatly from one another in what phenomena they investigate and in how they go about their work; in the reliance they place on historical data or on experimental findings and on qualitative or quantitative methods; in their recourse to fundamental principles; and in how much they draw on the findings of other sciences. Still, the exchange of techniques, information, and concepts goes on all the time among scientists, and there are common understandings among them about what constitutes an investigation that is scientifically valid.
Scientific inquiry is not easily described apart from the context of particular investigations. There simply is no fixed set of steps that scientists always follow, no one path that leads them unerringly to scientific knowledge. There are, however, certain features of science that give it a distinctive character as a mode of inquiry. Although those features are especially characteristic of the work of professional scientists, everyone can exercise them in thinking scientifically about many matters of interest in everyday life.
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.
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 reasoningthat 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 madeand 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.
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 explanationstheoriesmay 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.
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 primatesby male scientistsfocused 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.
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.
Science as an enterprise has individual, social, and institutional dimensions. Scientific activity is one of the main features of the contemporary world and, perhaps more than any other, distinguishes our times from earlier centuries.
Scientific work involves many individuals doing many different kinds of work and goes on to some degree in all nations of the world. Men and women of all ethnic and national backgrounds participate in science and its applications. These peoplescientists and engineers, mathematicians, physicians, technicians, computer programmers, librarians, and othersmay focus on scientific knowledge either for its own sake or for a particular practical purpose, and they may be concerned with data gathering, theory building, instrument building, or communicating.
As a social activity, science inevitably reflects social values and viewpoints. The history of economic theory, for example, has paralleled the development of ideas of social justiceat one time, economists considered the optimum wage for workers to be no more than what would just barely allow the workers to survive. Before the twentieth century, and well into it, women and people of color were essentially excluded from most of science by restrictions on their education and employment opportunities; the remarkable few who overcame those obstacles were even then likely to have their work belittled by the science establishment.
The direction of scientific research is affected by informal influences within the culture of science itself, such as prevailing opinion on what questions are most interesting or what methods of investigation are most likely to be fruitful. Elaborate processes involving scientists themselves have been developed to decide which research proposals receive funding, and committees of scientists regularly review progress in various disciplines to recommend general priorities for funding.
Science goes on in many different settings. Scientists are employed by universities, hospitals, business and industry, government, independent research organizations, and scientific associations. They may work alone, in small groups, or as members of large research teams. Their places of work include classrooms, offices, laboratories, and natural field settings from space to the bottom of the sea.
Because of the social nature of science, the dissemination of scientific information is crucial to its progress. Some scientists present their findings and theories in papers that are delivered at meetings or published in scientific journals. Those papers enable scientists to inform others about their work, to expose their ideas to criticism by other scientists, and, of course, to stay abreast of scientific developments around the world. The advancement of information science (knowledge of the nature of information and its manipulation) and the development of information technologies (especially computer systems) affect all sciences. Those technologies speed up data collection, compilation, and analysis; make new kinds of analysis practical; and shorten the time between discovery and application.
Organizationally, science can be thought of as the collection of all of the different scientific fields, or content disciplines. From anthropology through zoology, there are dozens of such disciplines. They differ from one another in many ways, including history, phenomena studied, techniques and language used, and kinds of outcomes desired. With respect to purpose and philosophy, however, all are equally scientific and together make up the same scientific endeavor. The advantage of having disciplines is that they provide a conceptual structure for organizing research and research findings. The disadvantage is that their divisions do not necessarily match the way the world works, and they can make communication difficult. In any case, scientific disciplines do not have fixed borders. Physics shades into chemistry, astronomy, and geology, as does chemistry into biology and psychology, and so on. New scientific disciplines (astrophysics and sociobiology, for instance) are continually being formed at the boundaries of others. Some disciplines grow and break into subdisciplines, which then become disciplines in their own right.
Universities, industry, and government are also part of the structure of the scientific endeavor. University research usually emphasizes knowledge for its own sake, although much of it is also directed toward practical problems. Universities, of course, are also particularly committed to educating successive generations of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. Industries and businesses usually emphasize research directed to practical ends, but many also sponsor research that has no immediately obvious applications, partly on the premise that it will be applied fruitfully in the long run. The federal government funds much of the research in universities and in industry but also supports and conducts research in its many national laboratories and research centers. Private foundations, public-interest groups, and state governments also support research.
Funding agencies influence the direction of science by virtue of the decisions they make on which research to support. Other deliberate controls on science result from federal (and sometimes local) government regulations on research practices that are deemed to be dangerous and on the treatment of the human and animal subjects used in experiments.
Most scientists conduct themselves according to the ethical norms of science. The strongly held traditions of accurate recordkeeping, openness, and replication, buttressed by the critical review of one's work by peers, serve to keep the vast majority of scientists well within the bounds of ethical professional behavior. Sometimes, however, the pressure to get credit for being the first to publish an idea or observation leads some scientists to withhold information or even to falsify their findings. Such a violation of the very nature of science impedes science. When discovered, it is strongly condemned by the scientific community and the agencies that fund research.
Another domain of scientific ethics relates to possible harm that could result from scientific experiments. One aspect is the treatment of live experimental subjects. Modern scientific ethics require that due regard must be given to the health, comfort, and well-being of animal subjects. Moreover, research involving human subjects may be conducted only with the informed consent of the subjects, even if this constraint limits some kinds of potentially important research or influences the results. Informed consent entails full disclosure of the risks and intended benefits of the research and the right to refuse to participate. In addition, scientists must not knowingly subject coworkers, students, the neighborhood, or the community to health or property risks without their knowledge and consent.
The ethics of science also relates to the possible harmful effects of applying the results of research. The long-term effects of science may be unpredictable, but some idea of what applications are expected from scientific work can be ascertained by knowing who is interested in funding it. If, for example, the Department of Defense offers contracts for working on a line of theoretical mathematics, mathematicians may infer that it has application to new military technology and therefore would likely be subject to secrecy measures. Military or industrial secrecy is acceptable to some scientists but not to others. Whether a scientist chooses to work on research of great potential risk to humanity, such as nuclear weapons or germ warfare, is considered by many scientists to be a matter of personal ethics, not one of professional ethics.
Scientists can bring information, insights, and analytical skills to bear on matters of public concern. Often they can help the public and its representatives to understand the likely causes of events (such as natural and technological disasters) and to estimate the possible effects of projected policies (such as ecological effects of various farming methods). Often they can testify to what is not possible. In playing this advisory role, scientists are expected to be especially careful in trying to distinguish fact from interpretation, and research findings from speculation and opinion; that is, they are expected to make full use of the principles of scientific inquiry.
Even so, scientists can seldom bring definitive answers to matters of public debate. Some issues are too complex to fit within the current scope of science, or there may be little reliable information available, or the values involved may lie outside of science. Moreover, although there may be at any one time a broad consensus on the bulk of scientific knowledge, the agreement does not extend to all scientific issues, let alone to all science-related social issues. And of course, on issues outside of their expertise, the opinions of scientists should enjoy no special credibility.
In their work, scientists go to great lengths to avoid biastheir own as well as that of others. But in matters of public interest, scientists, like other people, can be expected to be biased where their own personal, corporate, institutional, or community interests are at stake. For example, because of their commitment to science, many scientists may understandably be less than objective in their beliefs on how science is to be funded in comparison to other social needs.
Copyright © 1989, 1990 by American Association for the Advancement of Science