President's Commentary (Winter 2004)
By Jim Nelson
Announcer, Vol. 34, Iss. 4
What Is Science?
Recently I was asked, "What is the scientific method?" As the thermal energy in my feet fled, I realized I didn’t have the clean answer that my inquisitor expected. After rambling around for a while I presented the following model as a representation of "science."
Science is one way of trying to make sense out of the world that we experience. Clearly it is not the only way. For example religion, philosophy, traditions, art, etc., are other ways that people make sense of the world.
Collection of Facts:
Once we understand the theory, we are able to forget many of the facts. The individual facts can be reasoned out using the theory. Clearly these facts and the theories that tie them into patterns is one aspect of what we mean by science.
In the diagram below this is portrayed as the left extreme of a spectrum.
Process for Uncovering the Facts:
One of these attributes about the process of science is that anyone can do it. One difference between magic and science is related to this "anyone" principle. In magic the goal is to have a limited number of people who have access to how it is done. The opposite is true of science. One of the aspects of science is to make it possible for anyone to challenge the facts and theories or to verify the observations. In short, science tries to make it possible for anyone to know how it is done. This view of science is very important to a democratic society that depends on an educated population. Too much education is the enemy of the dictator.
Another aspect of science as a process is a belief in reproducibility. If I make an observation and then you make an observation under the same conditions now or at any time, the results will be the same. If the results are not the same, then science suggests that the conditions were not the same. In short, science as a process suggests that the same cause will produce the same effect. Since we know that cause and effect is based on probabilities, sometimes we have to make many observations to find the general rule underlying phenomena.
Questioning the Facts:
Here we have an example of "not-science" at both ends of the above spectrum. Not only was the factual answer wrong, but also the process of science was missing. My take on the quantum theory makes it impossible to specify the size of an isolated atom. Considering the bond lengths of various molecules that contain that atom permits us to approximate a value that is taken as the atom’s radius. In any case it is difficult to compare the size of an isolated atom and that same atom in a molecule.
As to where the word "element" should appear in this, I have not a clue. An element is a substance, which contains only one kind of atom, and thus it can be as small as an atom to something large enough to see. I am distressed that the author of the book question not only had the facts wrong, but also did not have enough scientific literacy to doubt the simple answer the book presented.
I know I have made many mistakes like this in my career, but in my teaching this year, I hope that both my students and I will grow in not only the facts of science, but also in our ability to use a scientific process in and out of school.