Scientific Method 12/22/18

By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.

“Will we be including creationism in this class?” she asked. “Of course not,” I replied, perhaps a bit too smugly. I knew what would follow. “Why not?” I had my answer ready.

It was an earth science class in the university where I worked and taught for the major that I had written. She was one of my senior students, so, while the question did not surprise me, the source did.

As a chemist, perhaps I should explain something here. I do not believe that science and faith have to be mutually exclusive. Personally, I believe in evolution and the big bang, but I respect those whose views do not match my own. And there is something about science that a lot of people don’t seem to understand. In science, we know nothing.

Any scientist worth their weight in, well, themselves, can tell you that nothing in science is truly “known”. We have two things; we have observation (often based on experiment), and models. The models, say, for example, Atomic Theory, is simply a model that best fits the observations that we have currently accumulated. We all understand that tomorrow, some particularly bright young star could come along and prove that everything that we think we know, even atomic theory, is wrong.

To the true scientist, this is not a problem. We realize that as time goes on, and more evidence is accumulated supporting our models, it is increasingly unlikely to happen, but even if it does…how exciting would it be to have to start over, completely, from scratch? Our hypotheses, our theories, and even our laws are subject to a certain degree of uncertainty, and we are comfortable working with this, for the primary reason that the current models are powerful at predicting the future. In fact, it is this power that we use to test the models. We set up experiments, and predict what should happen based on our current understanding, and if it fails, well, then that’s exciting, because we get to figure out why it failed and tweak our understanding as a result.

Of course, this inherent uncertainty does cause problems. For those outside of science, it makes a ready foothold for criticism. Take global warming, for example. Scientists will argue until we are extinct, because this is how science works. Today, though, most of the debate is over causes and mechanisms as a vast majority of scientists agree that global warming is the best model to fit current observations and data. Politicians, on the other hand, use this uncertainty to argue that we should not spend money on a model that is still (and always will be) debated. The ironic side to this entire debate, though, is how the predictive capabilities of the model is being used by the very political establishment that denies it. For example, the military has developed a model to prepare for how to deal with open northern polar pathways. The department of agriculture has been reporting the northern migration of optimal crop growth (that is, crops that used to grow in more temperate southern climates are beginning to be optimized further north as temperatures increase).

Which brings us back to the physical science course. By now, I hope that you realize the idea of science classes is not to make people change their beliefs, but rather, to teach to question everything. The theory of evolution is based on the scientific method, the heart of every science course, while creationism is faith based. Just because something is based on faith does not make it less significant, but it is of little practical value when teaching the scientific method.

The scientific method, by the way, is a general problem solving approach. It is not just for science. Although the steps vary slightly from one author to another, the general steps are the same. First, an observation is made. This observation will raise questions. Next, research is done on the topic. Perhaps the answer is already known, and if so, great. If the answer satisfies the observer’s curiosity, the process ends. Otherwise, the next step is to formulate a hypothesis based on the research. Perhaps explanations of similar phenomena will lead to a reasonable guess (a hypothesis) to explain the current observation. But how do we know that it’s right? The fourth step is to test the hypothesis. If the hypothesis is correct, we should be able to use it to predict something we haven’t yet seen. So, we create an experiment to test the hypothesis. If the experiment fails, we go back a couple of steps, modify the hypothesis, and repeat. In science, if we’ve tested the hypothesis to the point that we are confident, we publish the results. In science then, the next step is for other groups to test (and potentially modify) our hypothesis.

Many people use at least some of these steps every day. Every time you ask a question and look it up on a search engine, you are on the journey of the scientific method. Faith is something entirely different. It does not rely on proof or experiment, but it’s a belief held without proof. Creationism does not belong in a science class any more than evolution belongs in a church sermon, but when it is taught, the purpose should be to explain the scientific method. When listening to arguments about things like global warming, ask yourself what the evidence supports. After all, if we’re wrong, the consequences could be everything.

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