From Dr. Bruce Railsback at the
University of Georgia - Department of Geology (


What is Science?

What is science?

     Science is the concerted human effort to understand, or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding1. It is done through observation of natural phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions. (There are, of course, more definitions of science.)

     Consider some examples. An ecologist observing the territorial behaviors of bluebirds and a geologist examining the distribution of fossils in an outcrop are both scientists making observations in order to find patterns in natural phenomena. They just do it outdoors and thus entertain the general public with their behavior. An astrophysicist photographing distant galaxies and a climatologist sifting data from weather balloons similarly are also scientists making observations, but in more discrete settings.

     The examples above are observational science, but there is also experimental science. A chemist observing the rates of one chemical reaction at a variety of temperatures and a nuclear physicist recording the results of bombardment of a particular kind of matter with neutrons are both scientists performing experiments to see what consistent patterns emerge. A biologist observing the reaction of a particular tissue to various stimulants is likewise experimenting to find patterns of behavior. These folks usually do their work in labs and wear impressive white lab coats, which seems to mean they make more money too.

     The critical commonality is that all these people are making and recording observations of nature, or of simulations of nature, in order to learn more about how nature, in the broadest sense, works. We'll see below that one of their main goals is to show that old ideas (the ideas of scientists a century ago or perhaps just a year ago) are wrong and that, instead, new ideas may better explain nature.


So why do science? I - the individual perspective

     So why are all these people described above doing what they're doing? In most cases, they're collecting information to test new ideas or to disprove old ones. Scientists become famous for discovering new things that change how we think about nature, whether the discovery is a new species of dinosaur or a new way in which atoms bond. Many scientists find their greatest joy in a previously unknown fact (a discovery) that explains something problem previously not explained, or that overturns some previously accepted idea.

     That's the answer based on noble principles, and it probably explains why many people go into science as a career. On a pragmatic level, people also do science to earn their paychecks. Professors at most universities and many colleges are expected as part of their contractual obligations of employment to do research that makes new contributions to knowledge. If they don't, they lose their jobs, or at least they get lousy raises.

     Scientists also work for corporations and are paid to generate new knowledge about how a particular chemical affects the growth of soybeans or how petroleum forms deep in the earth. These scientists get paid better, but they may work in obscurity because the knowledge they generate is kept secret by their employers for the development of new products or technologies. In fact, these folks at Megacorp do science, in that they and people within their company learn new things, but it may be years before their work becomes science in the sense of a contribution to humanity's body of knowledge beyond Megacorp's walls.


Why do Science? II - The Societal Perspective

     If the ideas above help explain why individuals do science, one might still wonder why societies and nations pay those individuals to do science. Why does a society devote some of its resources to this business of developing new knowledge about the natural world, or what has motivated these scientists to devote their lives to developing this new knowledge?

     One realm of answers lies in the desire to improve people's lives. Geneticists trying to understand how certain conditions are passed from generation to generation and biologists tracing the pathways by which diseases are transmitted are clearly seeking information that may better the lives of very ordinary people. Earth scientists developing better models for the prediction of weather or for the prediction of earthquakes, landslides, and volcanic eruptions are likewise seeking knowledge that can help avoid the hardships that have plagued humanity for centuries. Any society concerned about the welfare of its people, which is at the least any democratic society, will support efforts like these to better people's lives.

     Another realm of answers lies in a society's desires for economic development. Many earth scientists devote their work to finding more efficient or more effective ways to discover or recover natural resources like petroleum and ores. Plant scientists seeking strains or species of fruiting plants for crops are ultimately working to increase the agricultural output that nutritionally and literally enriches nations. Chemists developing new chemical substances with potential technological applications and physicists developing new phenomena like superconductivity are likewise developing knowledge that may spur economic development. In a world where nations increasingly view themselves as caught up in economic competition, support of such science is nothing less than an investment in the economic future.

     Another whole realm of answers lies in humanity's increasing control over our planet and its environment. Much science is done to understand how the toxins and wastes of our society pass through our water, soil, and air, potentially to our own detriment. Much science is also done to understand how changes that we cause in our atmosphere and oceans may change the climate in which we live and that controls our sources of food and water. In a sense, such science seeks to develop the owner's manual that human beings will need as they increasingly, if unwittingly, take control of the global ecosystem and a host of local ecosystems.

     Lastly, societies support science because of simple curiosity and because of the satisfaction that comes from knowledge of the world around us. Few of us will ever derive any economic benefit from knowing that the starlight we see in a clear night sky left those stars thousands and even millions of years ago, so that we observe such light as messengers of a very distant past. However, the awe, perspective, and perhaps even serenity derived from that knowledge is very valuable to many of us. Likewise, few of us will derive greater physical well-being from watching a flowing stream and from reflecting on the hydrologic cycle through which that stream's water has passed, from the distant ocean to the floating clouds of our skies to the rains and storms upstream and now to the river channel at which we stand. However, the sense of interconnectedness that comes from such knowledge enriches our understanding of our world, and of our lives, in a very valuable way. By understanding the stars in our sky and the rivers under our bridges, we better understand who we are and our place in the world. When intangible benefits like these are combined with the more tangible ones outlined above, it's no wonder that most modern societies support scientific research for the improvement of our understanding of the world around us.


How Research becomes Scientific Knowledge

     As our friends at Megacorp illustrate, doing research in the lab or in the field may be science, but it isn't necessarily a contribution to knowledge. No one in the scientific community will know about, or place much confidence in, a piece of scientific research until it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. They may hear about new research at a meeting or learn about it through the grapevine of newsgroups, but nothing's taken too seriously until publication of the data.

     That means that our ecologist has to write a paper (called a "manuscript" for rather old-fashioned reasons). In the manuscript she justifies why her particular piece of research is significant, she details what methods she used in doing it, she reports exactly what she observed as the results, and then she explains what her observations mean relative to what was already known.

     She then sends her manuscript to the editors of a scientific journal, who send it to two or three experts for review. If those experts report back that the research was done in a methodologically sound way and that the results contribute new and useful knowledge, the editor then approves publication, although almost inevitably with some changes or additions. Within a few months (we hope), the paper appears in a new issue of the journal, and scientists around the world learn about our ecologist's findings. They then decide for themselves whether they think the methods used were adequate and whether the results mean something new and exciting, and gradually the paper changes the way people think about the world.

     Of course there are some subtleties in this business. If the manuscript was sent to a prestigious journal like Science or Nature, the competition for publication there means that the editors can select what they think are only the most ground-breaking manuscripts and reject the rest, even though the manuscripts are all well-done science. The authors of the rejected manuscripts then send their work to somewhat less exalted journals, where the manuscripts probably get published but are read by a somewhat smaller audience. At the other end of the spectrum may be the South Georgia Journal of Backwater Studies, where the editor gets relatively few submissions and can't be too picky about what he or she accepts into the journal, and not too many people read it. For better or worse, scientists are more likely to read, and more likely to accept, work published in widely-distributed major journals than in regional journals with small circulation.

     To summarize, science becomes knowledge by publication of research results. It then may become more general knowledge as writers of textbooks pick and choose what to put in their texts, and as professors and teachers then decide what to stress from those textbooks. Publication is critical, although not all publication is created equal. The more a newly published piece of research challenges established ideas, the more it will be noted by other scientists and by the world in general.


Science and Change (and Miss Marple)

     If scientists are constantly trying to make new discoveries or to develop new concepts and theories, then the body of knowledge produced by science should undergo constant change. Such change is progress toward a better understanding of nature. It is achieved by constantly questioning whether our current ideas are correct. As the famous American astronomer Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) put it, "Question everything".

     The result is that theories come and go, or at least are modified through time, as old ideas are questioned and new evidence is discovered. In the words of Karl Popper, "Science is a history of corrected mistakes", and even Albert Einstein remarked of himself "That fellow Einstein . . . every year retracts what he wrote the year before". Many scientists have remarked that they would like to return to life in a few centuries to see what new knowlege and new ideas have been developed by then - and to see which of their own century's ideas have been discarded. Our ideas today should be compatible with all the evidence we have, and we hope that our ideas will survive the tests of the future. However, any look at history forces us to realize that the future is likely to provide new evidence that will lead to at least somewhat different interpretations.

     Some scientists become sufficiently ego-involved that they refuse to accept new evidence and new ideas. In that case, in the words of one pundit, "science advances funeral by funeral". However, most scientists realize that today's theories are probably the future's outmoded ideas, and the best we can hope is that our theories will survive with some tinkering and fine-tuning by future generations.

     We can go back to Copernicus to illustrate this. Most of us today, if asked on a street corner, would say that we accept Copernicus's idea that the earth moves around the sun - we would say that the heliocentric theory seems correct. However, Copernicus himself maintained that the orbits of the planets around the sun were perfectly circular. A couple of centuries later, in Newton's time, it became apparent that those orbits are ellipses. The heliocentric theory wasn't discarded; it was just modified to account for more detailed new observations. In the twentieth century, we've additionally found that the exact shapes of the ellipses aren't constant (hence the Milankovitch cycles that may have influenced the periodicity of glaciation). However, we haven't gone back to the idea of an earth-centered universe. Instead, we still accept a heliocentric theory - it's just one that's been modified through time as new data have emerged.

     The notion that scientific ideas change, and should be expected to change, is sometimes lost on the more vociferous critics of science. One good example is the Big Bang theory. Every new astronomical discovery seems to prompt someone to say "See, the Big Bang theory didn't predict that, so the whole thing must be wrong". Instead, the discovery prompts a change, usually a minor one, in the theory. However, once the astrophysicists have tinkered with the theory's details enough to account for the new discovery, the critics then say "See, the Big Bang theory has been discarded". Instead, it's just been modified to account for new data, which is exactly what we've said ought to happen through time to any scientific idea.

     Try an analogy: Imagine that your favorite fictional detective (Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Nancy Drew, or whoever) is working on a difficult case in which the clues only come by fits and starts. Most detectives keep their working hypotheses to themselves until they've solved the case. However, let's assume that our detective decides this time to think out loud as the story unfolds, revealing their current prime suspect and hypothesized chronology of the crime as they go along. Now introduce a character who accompanies the detective and who, as each clue is uncovered, exclaims "See, this changes what you thought before - you must be all wrong about everything!" Our detective will think, but probably have the grace to not say, "No, the new evidence just helps me sharpen the cloudy picture I had before". The same is true in science, except that nature never breaks down in the last scene and explains how she done it.



Science and Knowledge

     So what does all this mean? It means that science does not presently, and probably never can, give statements of absolute eternal truth - it only provides theories. We know that those theories will probably be refined in the future, and some of them may even be discarded in favor of theories that make more sense in light of data generated by future scientists. However, our present theories are our best available explanations of the world. They explain, and have been tested against, a vast amount of information.

Consider some of the information against which we've tested our theories:

-  We've examined the DNA, cells, tissues, organs, and bodies of thousands if not millions of species of organisms, from bacteria to cacti to great blue whales, at scales from electron microscopy to global ecology.

-  We've examined the physical behaviour of particles ranging in size from quarks to stars and at times scales from femtoseconds to millions of years.

-  We've characterized the 90 or so chemical elements that occur naturally on earth and several more that we've synthesized.

-  We've poked at nearly every rock on the earth's surface and drilled as much as six miles into the earth to recover and examine more.

-  We've used seismology to study the earth's internal structure, both detecting shallow faults and examining the behavior of the planet's core.

-  We've studied the earth's oceans with dredges, bottles, buoys, boats, drillships, submersibles, and satellites.

-  We've monitored and sampled Earth's atmosphere at a global scale on a minute-by-minute basis.

-  We've scanned outer space with telescopes employing radiation ranging in wavelength from infrared to X-rays, and we've sent probes to examine both our sun and the distant planets of our solar system.

-  We've personally explored the surface of our moon and brought back rocks from there, and we've sampled a huge number of meteorites to learn more about matter from beyond our planet.
    We will do more in the centuries to come, but we've already assembled a vast array of information on which to build the theories that are our present scientific understanding of the universe.

     This leaves people with a choice today. One option is to accept, perhaps with some skepticism, the scientific (and only theoretical) understanding of the natural world, which is derived from all the observations and measurements described above. The other option, or perhaps an other option, is to accept traditional understandings3 of the natural world developed centuries or even millenia ago by people who, regardless how wise or well-meaning, had only sharp eyes and fertile imaginations as their best tools.




Scientific Thought: Facts, Hypotheses, Theories, and all that stuff

    There are different kinds of human knowledge, and it's useful to sort them out in order to understand what's going on in science. We'll consider the following terms: Fact, Deductive Inference, Inductive Inference, Hypothesis, Multiple Working Hypotheses, Theory, Evidence, Ockham's Razor, Natural Law, and Paradigm. The first few may be a little boring, but hang in there - things get more interesting further down.

- a truth known by actual experience or observation. The hardness of iron, the number of ribs in a squirrel's body, the existence of fossil trilobites, and the like are all facts.

    Is it a fact that electrons orbit around atomic nuclei? Is it a fact that Brutus stabbed Julius Caesar? Is it a fact that the sun will rise tomorrow? None of us has observed any of these things - the first is an inference from a variety of different observations, the second is reported by Plutarch and other historians who lived close enough in time and space to the event that we trust their report, and the third is an inductive inference after repeated observations (see below).

deductive inference
- a conclusion based on reasoning from accepted premises. Consider a somewhat loaded example: "The earth is a spherical body, a sphere by definition has equal radius in all directions, and therefore the radius of the earth is equal in all directions." We've taken two reasonable premises and reached a conclusion from them with. In this example, the conclusion is slightly flawed because the first premise is only an approximation: the earth is really a prolate spheriod (it bulges toward the equator because of its rotation). Deductive inference can be a powerful tool when the premises are correct, but the example illustrates what happens when one of the premises is flawed.

     (There's no logical fallacy in the example; the Web provides
pages and more pages on fallacies of logic.

inductive inference
- a conclusion based on repeated observation of fact. Drop a particular kind of ball on a particular floor from a particular height numerous (n) times, and you can, by induction from those examples, make an inference and a prediction about what will happen the next time you drop the ball. However, your prediction is not a fact, in that you won't know by actual observation the result of the n+1th drop until it has happened.

- a proposition explaining the occurrence of a phenomenon or phenomena, often asserted as a conjecture to guide further investigation. After dropping the ball from one height several times, you may think that dropping it from a greater height will lead to a different response, and you may predict that different response. Your prediction is a hypothesis, and you can test it by changing the height of the drop and observing the result. At that point, you'll have done an experiment to test your hypothesis.

multiple working hypotheses
- a method of research where one considers not just a single hypothesis but instead multiple hypotheses that might explain the phenomenon under study. Many of these hypotheses will be contradictory, so that some, if not all, will prove to be false. However, the development of multiple hypotheses prior to the research lets one avoid the trap of narrow-mindedly focusing on just one hypothesis.

     The Web has
more on Multiple Working Hypotheses

- a coherent set of propositions that explain a class of phenomena, that are supported by extensive factual evidence, and that may be used for prediction of future observations. For our rather trivial example, a theory would emerge only after a huge number of tests of different kinds of balls at different heights. The theory would try to explain why different kinds of balls bounce differently, and it ought to be useful in predicting how new materials would behave if dropped as balls in the same way.

Scientists have produced lots of familiar theories:
- - - Copernicus's theory of the heliocentric solar system,

- - - Newton's theory of gravity,

- - - Einstein's theory of relativity, and

- - - Darwin's theory of natural selection are a few.

Each of these theories draws on huge numbers of facts:

- - - observations of the passage of the sun and planets for the heliocentric theory;

- - - the behavior of the planets, of projectiles, and rather famously of apples for the theory of gravity, and

- - - the existence and location of fossils, as well as the modern distribution and reproduction of organisms, for the theory of natural selection.

    Some people dismiss a given scientific idea with "That's just a theory". They're right - all science can provide is theories. However, those theories have proven quite useful to all of us. Most of us won't step off the top of a building because of the results predicted by Newton's theory of gravitation - and yet it's just a theory. NASA and other space agencies launch space craft to distant planets on the basis on Newton's theory of gravitation and Copernicus's theory of the heliocentric solar system - and yet they're just theories. It's instructive to remember that Copernicus was required by the authorities of his time to preface his work as just a series of "hypotheses", and not even as a "just a theory".

- the physical observations and measurements made to understand a phenomen. Perhaps equally important is what's not

evidence: theories aren't evidence, and the opinions of even the most learned scientists aren't evidence.

     Note that evidence is one of the critical underpinnings of a theory (see above). A good scientist or observer of science periodically asks, "What do we think we know, and why do we think we know it?" The answer to the second part should be some sort or sorts of evidence, as defined in the previous paragraph.

Ockham's Razor
(a.k.a. Occam's Razor) - a philosophical statement developed by William of Ockham, an English monk who died in 1349. His orginal statement was " non sunt multiplicanda entia praeter necessitatem", or "assumptions are not to be multiplied beyond necessity". In thinking about our hypotheses and theories discussed above, perhaps the best modern statement of Ockham's Razor is

"Our explanations of things should minimize unsupported assumptions."

     If we have multiple hypotheses that can explain a thing, we ought to reject the hypotheses that involve agents or processes for which we have no evidence (bearing in mind how we've defined evidence above). Let's say we've observed a large rock in an otherwise featureless area. One of our hypotheses for the presence of the rock might be that an ancient giant threw it there, and another hypothesis might be that glacial ice transported it there. Ockham's Razor tells us to reject the first and retain the second for further consideration, because we have no evidence for ancient giants - they are an unsupported assumption. We do have modern evidence that flowing ice can transport large stones.

     It's not true to say, and William of Ockham wouldn't have said, that "the simplest explanation is the best explanation". The explanation that all matter consists of earth, air, fire, and water was simpler than the explanation involving the modern periodic table of elements, but it was wrong. An even better example is
Devil's Tower in Wyoming. Native American legend tells that this landform originated when a huge bear tried to climb a steep mountain to attack an Indian maiden, and the bear's claws scraped the sides of the mountain away. That's a simple explanation, but it assumes the existence of huge bear capable of clawing the sides of a mountain to leave something like Devil's Tower. The bear is an unsupported assumption that would cause most of us to reject the Native American story as anything other than folklore or myth.

     The Web of course offers more on Ockham's Razor and more on William of Ockham.

natural law
- a term rarely used today, at least by scientists thinking about what they're saying. Nineteenth-century science presumed that it could arrive at immutable, absolutely true, universal statements about nature, and these were to be "natural laws". Newton's ideas about gravitation, for example, were considered the "laws of gravity". To continue that example, in the twentieth century Einstein's theory of relativity showed that Newton's ideas needed correction in some cases. Thus it became apparent that it would be wisest to treat even our most trusted ideas, of which Newton's had been one, as theories rather than absolute laws.

- a way of thinking, commonly so ingrained in people's behavior or thought that they aren't even aware of it. If a theory presents a broad understanding of a phenomenon or problem, a paradigm may be the mindset that causes us to think that the theory matters one way or the other. In a non-scientific example, the Domino Theory was an explicit statement of what many Americans thought would happen if a single country in a given region (e.g. southeast Asia) had a communist government. The implicit paradigm was that the US ought to be, and had to be, involved in a global struggle with another superpower over what kind of political system would dominate the world's governments.

     In science, a major example of a change in paradigms was the change from Scholasticism to Modern Science, roughly around AD 1600. Scholasticism, which assumed that answers to questions about nature could be deduced from ancient texts and philosophical principals, gave way to the modern view of science where induction from accumulated evidence is (or should be) the underpinning of theories. (We talked about this more in
the previous section .) When Galileo was threatened by church authorities with torture for his claim that the earth orbits the sun, Galileo and his accusers were not only at odds about an astronomical theory. They were also arguing, if unwittingly, because they were using two very different paradigms: the churchmen were using scholasticism, and Galileo modern science.

     Incidentally, the fact that we only call today's way of thinking "modern science", rather than a distinct name, is a sign of how the users of a paradigm generally don't recognize what they're using. Another change of paradigms came when scientists, or at least some scientists, realized the futility of the search for natural laws, as discussed above.

     This distinction between paradigm and theory can be seen in the earth sciences. For example, the earth sciences have seen major theories of earth movment and mountain building come and go. Into the early 1900s, a static earth was the largely unquestioned model. Continental Drift, the theory of continents plowing through passive oceanic crust, was a controversial theory accepted in the early to middle parts of this century by many if not most geologists in the Southern Hemisphere, and by many in the Northern Hemisphere. It has been supplanted today by the widely accepted Plate Tectonic theory (in which the oceanic crust has a dynamic rather than passive role).

     Implicit behind all this changing theory has been the paradigm that the major goal of the earth sciences should be a theory to account for crustal movement, mountain building, and processes deep in the earth. We may now be going through a paradigm shift: we increasingly expect that the earth sciences should be mostly concerned about cycling of elements and changing conditions at the earth's surface. The paradigm isn't changing our theories, but it's changing our focus from one theory (or group of theories) about one problem to another theory (or group of theories) about another problem.

     The Web also offers an instructive comparison of models and paradigms.



Some Definitions of Science

Each of these sections begins with conventional definitions or comments and moves toward less conventional but perhaps more revealing statements

Definitions by goal and process:

1. the systematic observation of natural events and conditions in order to discover facts about them and to formulate laws and principles based on these facts. 2. the organized body of knowledge that is derived from such observations and that can be verified or tested by further investigation. 3. any specific branch of this general body of knowledge, such as biology, physics, geology, or astronomy.

                                Academic Press Dictionary of Science & Technology

Science is an intellectual activity carried on by humans that is designed to discover information about the natural world in which humans live and to discover the ways in which this information can be organized into meaningful patterns. A primary aim of science is to collect facts (data). An ultimate purpose of science is to discern the order that exists between and amongst the various facts.

                      Dr. Sheldon Gottlieb in a lecture series at the University of South Alabama

Science involves more than the gaining of knowledge. It is the systematic and organized inquiry into the natural world and its phenomena. Science is about gaining a deeper and often useful understanding of the world.

                                from the Multicultural History of Science page at Vanderbilt University.

Science consists simply of the formulation and testing of hypotheses based on observational evidence; experiments are important where applicable, but their function is merely to simplify observation by imposing controlled conditions.

                   Robert H. Dott, Jr., and Henry L. Batten, Evolution of the Earth (2nd edition)

Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceeding generation . . .As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

                                Richard Feynman, Nobel-prize-winning physicist,
                                 in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
                                as quoted in American Scientist v. 87, p. 462 (1999).

Definitions by contrast:

A modern poet has characterized the personality of art and the impersonality of science as follows: Art is I; Science is We.

           Claude Bernard (1813-1878), Physiologist and "the father of modern experimental medicine"

Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. . . . The proper and immediate object of science is the acquirement, or communication, of truth; the proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of immediate pleasure.

                                Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), Definitions of Poetry

To do science is to search for repeated patterns, not simply to accumulate facts.

                                Robert H. MacArthur, Geographical Ecology

Religion is a culture of faith; science is a culture of doubt.

                                Richard Feynman, Nobel-prize-winning physicist


Not quite definitions, but critical statements:

As a practicing scientist, I share the credo of my colleaues: I believe that a factual reality exists and that science, though often in an obtuse and erratic manner, can learn about it. Galileo was not shown the instruments of torture in an abstract debate about lunar motion. He had threatened the Church's conventional argument for social and doctrinal stability: the static world order with planets circling about a central earth, priests subordinate to the Pope and serfs to their lord. But the Church soon made its peace with Galileo's cosmology. They had no choice; the earth really does revolve around the sun.

                                Stephen J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man

The fuel on which science runs is ignorance. Science is like a hungry furnace that must be fed logs from the forests of ignorance that surround us. In the process, the clearing that we call knowledge expands, but the more it expands, the longer its perimeter and the more ignorance comes into view. . . . A true scientist is bored by knowledge; it is the assault on ignorance that motivates him - the mysteries that previous discoveries have revealed. The forest is more interesting than the clearing.

                                                    Matt Ridley, 1999
                   Genome: the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters, p. 271.

There is no philosophical high-road in science, with epistemological signposts. No, we are in a jungle and find our way by trial and error, building our roads behind us as we proceed. We do not find sign-posts at cross-roads, but our own scouts erect them, to help the rest.

                           Max Born (1882-1970), Nobel Prize-winning physicist,
                  quoted in Gerald Holton's Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought

The stumbling way in which even the ablest of the scientists in every generation have had to fight throught thickets of erroneous observations, misleading generalizations, inadequate formulations, and unconscious prejudice is rarely appreciated by those who obtain their scientific knowledge from textbooks

                                James Bryant Conant (1893-1978), Science and Common Sense

I think that we shall have to get accustomed to the idea that we must not look upon science as a "body of knowledge", but rather as a system of hypotheses, or as a system of guesses or anticiptations that in principle cannot be justified, but with which we work as long as they stand up to tests, and of which we are never justified in saying that we know they are "true" . . .

                          Karl R. Popper (1902-1994), The Logic of Scientific Discovery

The real purpose of the scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn't misled you into thinking you know something you don't actually know.

                                Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

We [scientists] wouldn't know truth if it jumped up and bit us in the ass. We're probably fairly good at recognizing what's false, and that's what science does on a day-to-day basis, but we can't claim to identify truth.

                                Dr. Steven M. Holland, University of Georgia Geology Professor

Science is the most subversive thing that has ever been devised by man. It is a discipline in which the rules of the game require the undermining of that which already exists, in the sense that new knowledge always necessarily crowds out inferior antecedent knowledge. . . . . This is what the patent system is all about. We reward a man for subverting and undermining that which is already known. . . . . Man has a tendency to resist changing his mind. The history of the physical sciences is replete with episode after episode in which the discoveries of science, subversive as they were because they undermined existing knowledge, had a hard time achieving acceptability and respectability. Galileo was forced to recant; Bruno was burned at the stake; and so forth. An interesting thing about the physical sciences is that they did achieve acceptance. Certainly in the more economically advanced areas of the Western World, it has become commonplace to do everything possible to accelerate the undermining of existent knowledge about the physical world. The underdeveloped areas of the world today still live in a pre-Newtonian universe. They are still resistant to anything subversive, anything requiring change; resistant even to the ideas that would change their basic concepts of the physical world.

                           Philip Morris Hauser (1909-), Demographer and Census Expert,
                           as quoted in Theodore Berland's The Scientific Life