The Nature of Science, from the Introduction to the Recommended Standards

From the Introduction to the Recommended Standards

Nature of Science
Science is a human activity of systematically seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us. Throughout history people from many cultures have used the methods of science to contribute to scientific knowledge and technological innovations, making science a worldwide enterprise. Scientists test explanations against the natural world, logically integrating observations and tested hypotheses with accepted explanations to gradually build more reliable and accurate understandings of nature. Scientific explanations must be testable and repeatable, and findings must be confirmed through additional observation and experimentation. As it is practiced in the late 20th and early 21st century, science is restricted to explaining only the natural world, using only natural cause. This is because science currently has no tools to test explanations using non-natural (such as supernatural) causes.It is important to note that science cannot answer all questions. Some questions are simply beyond the parameters of science. Among the conditions that help define the boundaries of scientific explanations are the following:

  • Scientific explanations are based on empirical observations or experiments. The appeal to authority as a valid explanation does not meet the requirements of science. Observations are based on sense experiences or on an extension of the senses through technology.
  • Scientific explanations assume cause-effect relationships. Much of science is directed toward determining causal relationships and developing explanations for interactions and linkages between objects, organisms, and events. Distinctions among causality, correlation, coincidence, and contingency separate science from pseudoscience.
  • Scientific explanations are tentative. Explanations can and do change. There are no scientific truths in an absolute sense.
  • Scientific explanations are historical. Past explanations are the basis for contemporary explanations, and those, in turn, are the basis for future explanations.
  • Scientific explanations are probabilistic. The statistical view of nature is evident implicitly or explicitly when stating scientific predictions of phenomena or explaining the likelihood of events in actual situations.
  • Scientific explanations are limited. Scientific explanations sometimes are limited by technology, for example, the resolving power of microscopes and telescopes. New technologies can result in new fields of inquiry or extend current areas of study. The interactions between technology and advances in molecular biology and the role of technology in planetary explorations serve as examples.
  • Scientific explanations are made public. Scientists make presentations at scientific meetings or publish in professional journals, making knowledge public and available to other scientists.

Hypothesis, law, and theory are frequently misunderstood terms used in science. A hypothesis is a testable statement about the natural world that can be used to design experiments and to build more complex inferences and explanations. A law is a descriptive generalization based on repeated observations. A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of the natural world that incorporates observations, inferences, laws, well-tested hypotheses and experimental findings to explain a specific aspect of the natural world. Theories drive research because they draw attention to areas where data or understandings are incomplete, suggesting additional directions for research.

Because all scientific explanations depend on observational and experimental confirmation, all scientific knowledge is, in principle, subject to change as additional evidence becomes available and/or as new technologies extends our abilities to explore. This open-endedness of science is its greatest strength, and allows for constant refining and improvement of explanations. Although all scientific knowledge is in principle tentative, science has a high degree of confidence in explanations that have been repeatedly tested and shown to be valid. The effect of these criteria is to ensure that scientific explanations about the world can be modified or abandoned in favor of new explanations if empirical evidence so warrants. The willingness of scientists to change explanations based on evidence, actually results in more reliable information. The early 21st century is a time of quite rapid scientific advancement, characterized by a high rate of both discovery and accumulation of knowledge. Rather then developing “new” theories however, the current explosion of knowledge has greatly expanded the basic and well-accepted principles from physics, chemistry, earth sciences, and biological sciences. Scientists recognize that there will always be new frontiers of science.