What is Science?

For most of human history, people had no way to explain many of the things they saw and experienced. Fire, storms, drought, disease — even the rising and setting of the sun — were significant but mysterious. Natural phenomena, especially those that affected human survival, were explained by myth, magic, and superstition. Understandably, this view of the world tended to make people fearful. It sometimes led to terrible practices, such as sacrificing a child to insure a good harvest.

Around 2,500 years ago a few people began to look at the world in a different way. They were the first scientists, and they were developing a new way of thinking about and understanding the natural world. Science begins with observation and questioning: Why does the sun rise in the east every morning and set in the west every evening? For some, the story of a god driving a fiery chariot across the sky every day was not a reasonable explanation. They noticed that the moon and stars as well as the sun traversed the sky in a daily rhythm. Was it possible that the sun was a very large, hot object, and that it and the rest of the heavens circled the earth? This was a scientific theory — a natural (rather than supernatural) explanation of what was being observed. This particular theory was widely accepted for almost two thousand years. Theories and their predictions, by definition, can be tested by more observation and experiment, and it was soon apparent that there were serious problems with this theory. The motion of some of the stars — planets, we now know — did not follow the theory's predictions. These heavenly bodies behaved in odd ways, traveling along complicated paths in the sky, even moving backward at times. The theory that placed the earth in the center of the heavens grew more complex as it was modified to explain these aberrations. Still, it was the best explanation that anyone could come up with for a long time. As increasingly detailed observations of the sky were made, however, more and more complicated adjustments were required to explain what was being observed.

About 500 years ago, a Polish scientist named Copernicus proposed a different explanation. Perhaps the earth was not at the center of the universe after all. What if the earth and the planets circled the sun? This idea had been suggested by Greek, Muslim and Indian astronomers hundreds of years earlier, but Copernicus gave us the first systematic model — the first scientific theory — of the universe without the earth at its center. Most people rejected the new theory, but it made predictions that were tested and shown to be accurate, and other scientists soon accepted it. This illustrates something important about science and scientific theory. Science is a process, not a set of facts. And, importantly, a theory is not a fact — it's something that explains facts, and it can always be proven wrong and replaced if new facts emerge or a better explanation is proposed.

Challenges to Science

There is a lot of confusion, these days, about the nature of science. The current debate about the theory of evolution and how it is taught is an example. A few school boards have added stickers to their science books that say, "evolution is only a theory." If these stickers were more complete, they would also say, "gravity is only a theory," "the idea that matter is composed of atoms is only a theory," and so on. The theory of gravity is well supported by many observations. It predicts that people, rocks and houses will remain firmly on the ground. There is no guarantee, however, that we won't all float off into space tomorrow. It's just that there are no observations that make this seem very likely. In the same way, the theory of evolution does an excellent job of explaining the development and diversity of living things and predicting what will happen to them in different situations. No other scientific theory has been proposed that can explain the way different life forms have arisen.

Creationism and intelligent design are not science — they offer no testable predictions. One reason the evolution controversy is so important is because of the way — along with the global warming debate — it's fostered confusion and misunderstanding of what science is and how it works. To a great extent, this confusion has been created intentionally. Intelligent design advocates, climate change deniers, and others with specific agendas to defend or promote have presented elaborate but often nonsensical arguments using the language of science to support their positions. The subject of evolution has also resulted in a great deal of self-censorship by educators and administrators unwilling to deal with the fallout from a controversy that is social rather than scientific.

Along with the social and political barriers to teaching science, many schools have de-emphasized it (along with music, art, history, civics and sports) because of policies that reward or punish a school for their students' performance on standardized tests of math and English.

Science and Wonder

There is a popular conception of the scientist as coldly logical, unmoved by beauty, lost in reams of data and numbers. From this perspective, science is the opposite of art or poetry. There's also a commonly held view of science as boring and difficult, which has led to well-intentioned but unfortunate attempts to make science interesting to children by presenting scientists as goofy and wacky — think wild hair, thick spectacles, and a disheveled lab coat. Science experiments are often recipes to be followed in order to make something smell bad or explode.

The biologist Richard Dawkins has said, ". . . nobody boasts of ignorance of literature, but it is socially acceptable to boast ignorance of science." That's too bad, because science has the ability to show us a universe more beautiful and amazing than any we could imagine: entire galaxies disappearing into huge black holes, stars destroying themselves in explosions of unbelievable force as they create the very elements we are made of, and living things — humans, for example — made of trillions of cells that interact with exquisite timing and precision.

My own belief is that the more we understand about what the universe is and how it works, the greater our appreciation of the beauty and wonder of the world, of each other, and of being here to think about it all.

Science — Good and Bad

Science is not good or bad. It is, however, a powerful tool. Used carelessly or with bad intent, science can cause terrible harm. Used to do good or to increase our understanding, it can ease suffering and make our lives much richer, both physically and intellectually. It's critically important, for all of us, that children grow up with an understanding of what science is and how it works. They'll need to recognize when they are being misled by incomplete data, false information, and pseudoscience. They will be asked to make science-based decisions about biotechnology, energy, artificial intelligence — along with things we have not yet thought of — that will have life-changing consequences for the entire world. The scientific process teaches us to not accept things at their face value, to ask questions, and to demand evidence. An ability to think this way will be invaluable as our children confront an increasingly complex world.