Advertisement

What Makes Science 'Science'?

Trainee teachers don't have a clue, and most scientists probably don't either. That's bad news.

By | October 1, 2008

<figcaption> Credit: ® Alexander Fedorov</figcaption>
Credit: ® Alexander Fedorov

As a science educator, I train science graduates to become science teachers. Over the past two years I've surveyed their understanding of key terminology and my findings reveal a serious problem. Graduates, from a range of science disciplines and from a variety of universities in Britain and around the world, have a poor grasp of the meaning of simple terms and are unable to provide appropriate definitions of key scientific terminology. So how can these hopeful young trainees possibly teach science to children so that they become scientifically literate? How will school-kids learn to distinguish the questions and problems that science can answer from those that science cannot and, more importantly, the difference between science and pseudoscience?

Here are some of the data from the 74 graduates that I've surveyed to date:

• 76% equated a fact with 'truth' and 'proven'

• 23% defined a theory as 'unproven ideas' with less than half (47%) recognizing a theory as a well evidenced exposition of a natural phenomenon

• 34% defined a law as a rule not to be broken, and forty-one percent defined it as an idea that science fully supports.

• Definitions of 'hypothesis' were the most consistent, with 61% recognizing the predictive, testable nature of hypotheses.

The results show a lack of understanding of what scientific theories and laws are. And the nature of a 'fact' in science was not commonly understood, with only 11% defining a fact as evidence or data. Here are just a few of their definitions of a scientific theory: "An idea based on a little evidence, not fact"; "an idea about something, not necessarily true"; "unproven ideas."

Some of the graduates implicitly or explicitly equated theories with hypotheses. For example, one defined a theory as "not necessarily proven correct. A hypothesized statement explaining something." Another defined a hypothesis as "a theory needing investigation," another stated that a hypothesis was "a theory based on knowledge" and yet another as a "theory proven by experiment." Conversely, one graduate defined a theory as "a large hypothesis." Another definition separated out a theory from experimental science by defining it as "the paperwork behind observations, such as literature that tries to rationalize observations and experiments."

Here's why these responses are problematic: Given the numerous news stories that require an understanding of how science operates - global warming, cloning, the possible dangers posed by cell phones or the pros and cons of genetically modified crops - understanding the difference between a fully fledged scientific theory that is backed by evidence and accepted by the scientific community and a speculative guess is essential. If we, as scientists, cannot teach children what these words mean in a scientific context, how can we hope to improve scientific literacy generally? If science graduates are confused to begin with, then it is an uphill battle.

Only a few of the graduates had studied any history and philosophy of science, and therein lies the problem. The majority had high quality degrees and some had doctorates in a science discipline, so it wasn't that they were not well qualified in science. It was just that their study of science had been utilitarian, a means to an end with the end being a practicing scientist. They had not been given any grounding or instruction on what makes science 'science.' It was not their fault: history and philosophy of science was an optional part of their degree programs and many could not see the point of it.

The point is this: you must understand your discipline, know its foundations so you are able to defend it from attack by those who seek to hijack science for their own ends, such as climate change deniers, GM modification scaremongers, or creationists. A basic course in the history and philosophy of science should be a compulsory element of an undergraduate degree in any science discipline.

James Williams is a lecturer in science education at the University of Sussex.

Comments

Avatar of: Jean Helgeson

Jean Helgeson

Posts: 1

October 11, 2008

I am a biology professor at a community college in Texas, trying to get this precise information across to freshman non-science majors. They often have a hard time accepting this when I present it to them, since it generally contradicts what they already "know" about science from high school. We have had class discussions about the Theory of Evolution and the Cell Theory, as well as the Theory of the Atom and the Big Bang Theory, so I think I'm getting "theory" across to them. But then we have an exam, and nearly everyone misses the point again. I can't keep going back over what is meant by "hypothesis" or "theory" and what is being tested in an experiment, because we need to cover the real biology of the course, not just these terms. Understanding this basic philosophy is a topic that should be part of what science students learn in high school, not in college-level science courses! I had two history of science courses as an undergraduate, and a philosophy of biology course in graduate school, which were really helpful in this area. If current science teaching graduates don't know these definitions in Britain, chances are they don't in other countries either, including America. So what hope is there for the students?
Avatar of: James Williams

James Williams

Posts: 3

October 12, 2008

I think that Jean's comment really supports my position. I train graduates to be science teachers and school science is where it is critical that studnets understand the difference between key terminology. \nThe problem is that scientists often use the terms interchangably and science graduates who become entrenched in their own misuse of key terms then find it very difficult.\n\nFirst we should have some kind of agreed set of definitions (and yes I know that will not please everybody) which in itself will take time and probably lots of disagreement. Next we must ensure that College science reinforces and uses these terms correctly and so I would still have HPS as part of a college course! Then we can tackle the teaching of science to make sure that all high school students understand that theory, hypothesis etc have particular meanings in science. How can we expect college graduates who do not understand key terminology or who have not done HPS to successfully teach it to students in high school?\nFinally we may have a scientifically literate population which is not then hoodwinked by psuedoscience - be it creationism, astrology or any other mad, bad 'science' that seeks to undermine good science (e.g. intelligent design creationism!)
Avatar of: Domenica Devine

Domenica Devine

Posts: 1

October 14, 2008

As a biology teacher for undergraduates, I find not only the terminology of laws, theory and hypothesis difficult for students as well as some of my fellow educators to grasp, but there are also misunderstandings as to what ?science? is. The term is used interchangeably with ?technology? and now the contraction of those terms ?technoscience?. I?ve always explained science the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the ?why?. Technology is the application of that knowledge to advance human abilities, the ?how?. Is technoscience the "what"? Or what?

October 14, 2008

I couldn't agree more and, frankly, I'm surprised at how well some of the students did. FYI and enjoyment, please see, http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~hsdept/bios/shapin-work.html#articles for a jumping off point for an amusing and scholarly examination of the history of science.
Avatar of: Shamim Faruqi

Shamim Faruqi

Posts: 2

October 14, 2008

I was teaching botany and then genetics at karachi university in Pakistan and started a course on philosophy of science,which I taught but after I left it was dropped.There were at least fourteen PH.Ds. mostly from Britain and few from USA but none wanted to teach. This problem is more so true in third world countries where utility is the main reason for education. In addition to that students heckle with you as soon as they think that their belief is challenged.
Avatar of: john toeppen

john toeppen

Posts: 52

October 14, 2008

Scientists don?t own the English language. Law schools study laws that can be broken. Sociological and political truths can have truthyness ? a recently coined and somewhat popular term. One can theorize about the facts of many fuzzy edged sciences. But the truth is that we are not the only ones that use English. Common uses have different meanings than the meanings used by science. If these meanings are not specifically taught, we certainly can not hope for osmotic assimilation of this knowledge. We must define our terms clearly as a function of context and different from those of common use. This is a reflection of how well we communicate the concepts of the scientific method.
Avatar of: Michael Holloway

Michael Holloway

Posts: 55

October 14, 2008

No, sorry, I have to disagree. A History of Science course would be just another bucket-o-facts to be memorized and then quickly forgotten. What is at fault is the way science is taught: as a list of facts mostly unconnected to each other. If by "teaching the history of science" you mean presenting how these facts came to be understood, how the people involved actually went about doing their experiments, and why, then I have to insist that this is the way all science instruction has to be done. Observation, hypothesis, experiment, theory, has to be in every lesson plan. Its the key to understanding the process, and the facts, of science. In biology even rote memorization of taxonomy has to be fit into the theory of evolution in order for any real learning to take place.
Avatar of: Gerry Smith

Gerry Smith

Posts: 9

October 14, 2008

Over my long career in science I have seen many things, includung an awful lot of career advancement by inventing data and lying. A real scientist is simply someone who tells the truth about his observations, how and why they are observed is of little consequence but must be recorded truthfully. Anyone can make an interpretation mistake. Experimental lying should carry the career-end penalty with no exceptions.
Avatar of: Wade Schuette

Wade Schuette

Posts: 1

October 14, 2008

Yes, it is a good question, "What is Science?" with a capital S, meaning the institution of science as practiced today.\n\nI hear continually that people need more math and science in order to engage in rational discussion of key social topics -- and yet, why is it that the subject of "rational discussion" does not appear in most scientific curricula? \n\nI can't recall anywhere in physics where we discussed "diagramming an argument and locating and naming the logical errors in reasoning". \n\nIf the argument is advanced that our society is failing for a lack of math and science, I would suggest that an entire government full of dual PhD's in those fields would not, by itself, produce the desired outcome. It is, in fact, something ELSE that is missing.\n\nAll of which again says to me that there are socially important realities that are not easily perceived by the institution and tools of Science, and yet realities that human beings need to make decisions about today.\n \nA required set of courses should include not only the philosophy of science, as viewed from inside, but also the shortcomings of the Scientific Method when it comes to addressing real world social problems in finite time.\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

October 14, 2008

A key characteristic of science is that it is based on first-hand observation of facts, as opposed to reliance on authority. An authority figure standing in front of a class relating the findings of biology or physics is almost the antithesis of science, but this is how 95% of people learn biology and physics. No wonder they are confused. The best way to teach science is to tell students to start by throwing out everything they think they know. But of course, then they won't learn much biology or physics. A dilemma!
Avatar of: GRAHAM STOCKS

GRAHAM STOCKS

Posts: 1

October 14, 2008

Comparing and contrasting (mainly the latter) the ideas of Popper and Kuhn consigned to the science educators' trash-bin then?
Avatar of: Scott Mitchell

Scott Mitchell

Posts: 2

October 14, 2008

While I agree that the large majority of evidence supports global warming, your dismissing anyone who has alternative views as pusher of "psuedoscience" seems to indicate a certain lack of the unbiased objectiveness that you are (rightly) calling to be upheld.
Avatar of: Robert Wendell

Robert Wendell

Posts: 22

October 14, 2008

In his reference to "GM modification scaremongers", the author himself sneaks in a bit of non-science-based propaganda. The amazing theoretical foundations of modern genetic engineering technology are examples of truly wonderful science. They have opened up access to invaluable information concerning our ancient past, and our understanding of human evolution and world-wide patterns of migration, among many other fantastic contributions to our knowledge in otherwise apparently unrelated and harmless fields.\n\nHowever, technology is not science, as the author clearly points out. There is nothing, absolutely nothing in the science that says anything either way about the safety or danger of the technological applications we may deploy on the basis of this science. It is, however, rationally implicit in this science that these technologies are both extremely powerful and that some of their applications are irreversible. Irreversibility and profoundly powerful implications in the context of very little to no data that clearly establish long term safety is at the very minimum a huge red flag from any rational perspective at all.\n\nThere are huge monies at stake in the wanton application of some of these technologies, however. This should be another big, very red flag for anyone with a grain of sense. I have a personal acquaintance, a lawyer, who is an activist against genetically engineered food. With great difficulty, he was able to access internal memos from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in which the FDA's own scientists were issuing warnings to their administrative superiors about the dangers of allowing genetically modified foods into the public markets without extensive, long-term testing. \n\nThese memos had been not simply ignored, but suppressed by the political beings inhabiting the administrative (read that non-scientific) aspect of this government agency. Worse, although one would think that uncovering such memos would be highly newsworthy no matter what your predisposition toward genetic engineering, absolutely no media save fringe publications would touch this story with a ten-meter pole. Money talks even when science doesn't.\n\nI personally do not find it at all intelligent to surreptitiously insert in an article with such pretensions to scientific purity this kind of not-so-subtly implied propaganda against rational concerns by any standard that is the least bit characterized by objectivity. What we don't know can be very dangerous indeed. This is not simply a vague, unfounded fear of the unknown, but an honest assessment of the danger intrinsic to the application of highly potent, irreversible technologies in the absence of data, that is to say, facts that don't come remotely close to guaranteeing the safety of some of these technologies. \n\nIndeed, there are some facts, while not constituting proof, that are indicating a possibility of precisely the opposite. There is a conspicuous absence in most of the media of the apparent immunity of organic honey farmers to the massive loss of life in farmed bee colonies, to mention only one flag that should at least provoke some sense of caution. \n\nThere has also been the notorious loss of life in monarch butterfly populations that seems suspiciously related to genetically modified corn crops. On the flip side of this coin, there are now companies that employ genetic engineering technology to test for genetic modification in food crops. With regard to irreversibility, one such company has shown that there is likely no corn left in the entire world that does not exhibit some component of genetic modification. They have tested what used to be pure line corn farmed for centuries by indigenous populations in extremely isolated regions in the South American Andes and found even that corn to be mildly contaminated with genetically modified DNA, apparently through bird droppings.
Avatar of: David Saum

David Saum

Posts: 1

October 14, 2008

The motto of the Royal Society was taken from Horace's "Nullius addictus judicare in verba magistri" which is translated "Not compelled to swear to any master's words." This artifact from the dawn of science goes more to the heart of the essence of science than a detailed understanding of terminology such as hypothesis and theory.\n\nTrue scientists do not engage in name calling such as "climate change deniers", "GM modification scaremongers", or "creationists". They ask for evidence and argument, and base their evidence on this, rather than the conclusions of others.\n\n\n
Avatar of: Steve Summers

Steve Summers

Posts: 28

October 15, 2008

From "Popper and Kuhn on the Evolution of Science"\n(http://humanists.net/pdhutcheon/Papers%20and%20Presentations/Popper%20and%20Kuhn%20on%20the%20Evolution%20of%20Science.htm):\n \n"Legitimate science does not aim for "true" theories purporting to reflect an ultimately accurate picture or "essence" of reality. It leaves such pretensions of infallibility to ideology."\n\nYes, remarks such as "climate change deniers, GM modification scaremongers, or creationists" subvert objectivity in Science, revealing and promoting a dogmatism comparable to those of creationists. \n\nIf the motive for the `climate change' comment was not made in a context of the philosophy of science but rather in the context of a warning about what appeared to be a clear and present danger it might be sympathized with and recognized as non-dogmatic.\n\nAs far as GM modification goes this same dogmatism, or more accurately unscientific vested interest, has fired or smeared numerous scientists whose research has contradicted the dogma (Pusztai, Losey, Ermakova, Burroughs, Chapela, etc.). Throwing GM issues together with creationism is egregious and only serves the same machinery of denigration.\n\nThe readily exploited dogmatism is characterized by Kuhn as that of the scientific "worker bees" who are "armed with considerable resistance to radically different perspectives on the problem...and this means that propositions challenging the established paradigm will not be readily accepted" (Popper and Kuhn on the Evolution of Science). \n\nUnfortunately the danger issue of GMOs can be understood well within the established paradigm but understanding has been subverted by unscientific and malicious suppression, intimidation, prevarication, etc., revealing more than dogmatic resistance but ascientific and immoral vested interest that has successfully misinformed even normal scientists, inducing them to be inadvertent apologists.\n\n
Avatar of: Michael Holloway

Michael Holloway

Posts: 55

October 15, 2008

From a previous comment:\n"your dismissing anyone who has alternative views as pusher of "psuedoscience" "\n\nThis is obviously naive, as well as misquoting, but touches on a major general misunderstanding of science not often mentioned in discussions about public misconceptions of science: the central importance of peer review in the process of science. Current emphasis in science education is focusing on the process (good), but implementing it as something an individual does in isolation (bad). Each student is asked to "critically analyze" something and come to their own conclusion. In a postmodern, social relativism, world no conclusion is singled out as obviously better than any other, but that is simply not the way science is done. Sorry, but there are, in fact, people out there with agendas other than the academic advancement of knowledge. What's the most effective way of determining if a William Dembski's assertions have any merit? Peer review. If knowledgeable people have studied an assertion and found it to be not only a less satisfying theory, but also purposely disingenuous, then it most likely is psuedoscience. Educating the public in making this distinction is critically necessary in these times when an election can be held to judge a debate about a scientific concept.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

October 15, 2008

Discussions of GM food technology always seem to end in name calling. We can all agree that whatever science is, that's not it. I'd like to issue an invitation. Can anyone cite any references to peer reviewed reports documenting damage to human health specifically due to eating GM food? Most US consumers have been eating GM food for the better part of a decade. If it's so dangerous, there ought to be plenty of evidence out there by now.
Avatar of: Robert Wendell

Robert Wendell

Posts: 22

October 16, 2008

When a technology that is simultaneously extremely powerful and irreversible and about which knowledge of the long-term consequences is currently totally inaccessible, the lack of evidence either way is reason for caution and not the reverse. GMO deals with very subtle interactions at both microscopic and macroscopic levels. The evidence is therefore most likely to be very highly diffused and difficult to locate whether in the short or long term, but certainly most especially in the very short term involved so far. \n\nWe certainly cannot argue that human health is a problem-free issue. Remember how long it has taken to even decide on a socially significant scale that something as obviously damaging to human health as smoking tobacco is causing health problems? This is especially true when huge amounts of money are involved. The power of money has been very evident despite that in stark contrast with GMO technology, even common sense should indicate that the habitual inhalation of smoke of any kind is probably not an amazingly healthy practice. \n\nThe money behind GMO in foodstuffs is enormously greater than that behind tobacco use and the connections with potential health problems likely much more difficult to locate for the reasons already stated. The idea that any connection should be obvious by now is specious indeed.
Avatar of: a a

a a

Posts: 2

October 17, 2008

"GMO deals with very subtle interactions at both microscopic and macroscopic levels. The evidence is therefore most likely to be very highly diffused and difficult to locate whether in the short or long term, but certainly most especially in the very short term involved so far."\n\nGMO deals with very specific things called "genes". They are either expressed, or not expressed. Ten years of safe consumption by a population is the result of an understanding of basic biology. Unlike smoking, GMO has never been shown to do anything harmful, ever. "diffused and difficult to locate" indeed.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 107

October 17, 2008

Readers of The Scientist should be aware of a recently developed branch of logic called Paranoid Logic, which has important applications in Conspiracy Theory and certain branches of science, such as ufology. A central tenet of Paranoid Logic is that the less evidence there is, the greater the probability that something is being covered up. In the limiting condition, P approaches 1 when there is a total lack of evidence. A corollary is that the more thorough the coverup, the bigger the secret must be. Probably the most widely known application of Paranoid Logic occurred during the run-up to the Iraq War, when Bush et al. used it to prove that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. However, what is not generally appreciated is that this proof has only become stronger with the passage of time. Indeed it is this feature of Paranoid Logic that makes it so powerful.
Avatar of: Robert Wendell

Robert Wendell

Posts: 22

October 17, 2008

Quoting a a:\n\n"GMO deals with very specific things called 'genes'. They are either expressed, or not expressed. Ten years of safe consumption by a population is the result of an understanding of basic biology. Unlike smoking, GMO has never been shown to do anything harmful, ever. "diffused and difficult to locate" indeed."\n\n"Ten years of safe consumption...?" How do you know? Absence of evidence doesn't prove anything, or don't we know that yet? Further, that genes are specific, and either expressed or not, completely misses the point, as should be obvious. That we cannot locate their effects easily does not mean they don't have any. That was already addressed in a previous post, but the point seems to have gone unnoticed or at least uncomprehended. The red flags are:\n\n1) the incredible power of the technologies\n\n2) their irreversibility in those applications that open into the general environment \n\n3) the conspicuous lack of evidence concerning whether effects of these application are safe or not\n\n4) the inherent difficulty of connecting any real effects that may exist to their causes\n\nThe point regarding tobacco use is that despite what SHOULD have been obvious to everyone WAS NOT for decades and to some is still not obvious enough to do anything about it. People got lung cancer before the advent of smoking. The effects of smoking are long term and not immediately obvious despite the common sense observation that habitually inhaling smoke couldn't be very healthy. Maybe some here didn't grow up when most people pretended that studies showing smoking was bad for health were considered to be on something like a lunatic fringe, since most people wanted to just keep smoking and remain in denial.\n\nThe central point was this:\nHow much LESS significance for people will POTENTIAL dangers have that are INTRINSICALLY much more DIFFICULT to detect, if they exist? It is clearly not even very significant to some scientists (who are still people and often not so scientific). Yet the red flags listed earlier should be clear cause for caution for any rational person. \n\nWe don't even have the science in place that allows us to reliably predict what the effects of any specific genetic modification will be. Sometimes the effects are very global and sometimes very localized. We mostly just experiment to discover empirically what will happen, and when we happen to find a way to produce a desired result, we often don't know what other apparently unrelated results might manifest even in the same organism. A gene modification that changes hair color could conceivably change the shape of a limb. Their are many real examples of just such situations.\n\nThe genetic level represents microscopic interaction and its effects within a single organism, the macroscopic level represents both individual health and the environmental ramifications of interactions on both levels. Since both levels intimately interact, the issue becomes extremely complex.\n\nWhen such technology is unleashed on the general environment, the macroscopic level is greatly extended, becoming much more macroscopic still. Scientists should be keenly aware of the bewildering complexity of ecological interactions. So on neither the microscopic nor the macroscopic level do we have reliable means for assessing any effects of GMO, not to mention their long-term ramifications. \n\nOne of my previous posts made this simple point: human health is not a problem-free issue. If it were, then locating the effects of GMO, if not simple, would at least be simpler. The simple fact is that it's not. So how can anyone intelligently propose in the light of the clear facts presented here that because we have not yet incontrovertibly connected any health issues with GMO that such connections do not or never will exist? \n\nUseful discussions involve sincere attempts to respond in a rationally well-targeted manner to the central intent of those points made by others rather than useless detours. Such detours miss the point entirely and/or repeat arguments to which there have already been clear responses that continue to go ignored and unaddressed. If there is disagreement with my rebuttal to a point, please show enough courtesy to at least attempt to point out any weakness in that rebuttal rather than simply ignoring the rebuttal and uselessly repeating the point as if there had been no rebuttal.
Avatar of: Paula Petterson

Paula Petterson

Posts: 1

October 18, 2008

In response to Jean Helgeson's comment, "Understanding this basic philosophy is a topic that should be part of what science students learn in high school, not in college-level science courses!" I have to say that this must begin earlier than high school. When I taught 7th grade science, it frustrated me that so many students had already learned that a hypothesis is "an educated guess" or a prediction or something that can be "proven" by data they collect during lab activities and that a theory means something that wasn't supported - as in "just a theory". As the first science specialist these students had, I was trying to help them unlearn misconceptions that had already become ingrained.\n\n
Avatar of: John Collins

John Collins

Posts: 37

October 21, 2008

The discussion on GMOs is really quite typical. The public in Europe has been completely brain-washed with respect to GMOs which are by definition a "bad thing". This dominates the Press and Politics to the extent that any news related to the positive effects of using GMOs (for example reducing really harmful contamination with fungal toxins) are actively suppressed. See : Nature Biotechnology, Dezember 2007, 25(12), S. 1330. Our educationalists should give children not only a clear teaching curriculum on the meaning of words but also in politics (not too blue eyed), ethics and conducting "fair" and logical arguments.
Avatar of: Robert Wendell

Robert Wendell

Posts: 22

October 21, 2008

I'm not clear on what you intend to imply, John. If there are any of my arguments you consider to be less than "logical and fair", I would appreciate your pointing out exactly where you feel they fall short. My arguments should have established, I would like to think, that what is "bad" about just blindly and enthusiastically charging forth with GMO is what we don't know about its safety one way or the other combined with the unarguable potency of its long-term ramifications and the irreversibility of its effects when loosed upon the open ecological environment. \n\nIt is difficult to see how anyone can consider it just fine and consistent with "logical and fair" arguments to go charging ahead with GMO based on an assumption that because any potential ill effects are not already obvious, they don't exist. Let's suppose you don't know what the specific subject matter under consideration is and you are presented with a general question about long-term safety of a new technology X.\n\nSuppose you are further informed that the effects of this new technology are irreversible and that they have potentially enormous ramifications for the future, with the distinct possibility that these ramifications could be either positive, negative, or both. You are told that there are no data either way on implementing this technology concerning the safety or lack of it and the effects, although extremely potent, will be extremely difficult to trace back to their cause owing to the complexity of interactions involved on all levels. \n\nTell me, would you honestly consider it fair and logical to advance arguments that propose that it would be perfectly fine to just go ahead and implement this technology X under the stated conditions?
Avatar of: Axel Jencks

Axel Jencks

Posts: 1

October 22, 2008

I think all authors tackling this issue should explain up front that law, hypothesis, fact and theory are not necessarily mutually exclusive otherwise what follows can be misleading. The author fails to do this and unfortunately effectively embarrasses himself by saying 'nature of a fact in science was not commonly understood, with only 11% defining a fact as evidence or data'. This contradicts Stephen J. Gould (just to give one example) who famously says 'a fact is a proposition affirmed to such a high degree that it would be perverse to withhold one's provisional assent' also supported by the National Academy of Sciences US which says 'scientists can also use fact to mean something that has been tested or observed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples.' \n\nThe author's understanding of 'theory' seems little better. The need to qualify theory as 'fully fledged' rather gives away the weakness of his argument. A scientific theory is in reality a polyseme so it's not unreasonable the students gave different answers. Some understand theory as well established body of propositions. Others equally legitimately apply theory on account of the complexity and predictive power of a framework of statements irrespective of the certainty of it being true. This is especially true of theories, widely cited in scientific literature, which are qualified as 'new'.
Avatar of: John Daly

John Daly

Posts: 1

October 30, 2008

Too bad the author didn't try to address the question posed in his title. What is the common element of ethnology, experimental physics, and systematic botany?\n\nI might ask, similarly, what is the common factor that makes information theory, Newton's theory of gravity and the theory of evolution all theories?
Avatar of: a a

a a

Posts: 2

October 31, 2008

"A gene modification that changes hair color could conceivably change the shape of a limb. Their are many real examples of just such situations. "\n\nThere are not many real examples of such situations Mr. Wendell, and I prompt you to find even one. \n\nA fair and logical argument is not one in which proven technology that improves the lives of millions is withheld because "it may, in the future, prove to have negative consequences". While you might be okay to see humanity suffer while you wring your hands dreaming up ways in which DNA could suddenly mutate and doom us all to some fantastic fate, or other science fiction scenarios, those of us who have been in the field will continue to defend GMO, because of our confidence in a few simple, observable facts. \n\n1. DNA is a robust molecule, it is highly structured and IS NOT prone to mutation in the absence of mutagens. \n\n2. The methods used to introduce new genes to DNA are fairly basic and none of them are ever done in the presence of mutagens. \n\nObserve a gene and isolate it. Cut up the DNA of the intended recipient of new gene, introduce the new gene, the DNA will either take the new gene and integrate it, or it won't. Expression of that gene either will or will not occur.\n\nIt is, within all observation to date, an either or situation. If it doesn't work you didn't cut the gene in the right place and you have a non-active segment, or the recipient DNA is not compatible somehow with your gene. No exceptions. There has never been an accidental "oh god its got limbs where it shouldn't" type of mistake here. DNA does not work like that. It checks itself for errors and if you introduce a new gene you have only two outcomes, expression or non.\n\n3. The "packet" nature of genes is why the above mentioned methods are so reliable. However DNA works, it does not appear to have any discernible cause or effect relationship to any other genes. Each gene is a self-contained packet of information, for our purposes. It may or may not contain other information, but when we identify a gene and isolate it (through various methods not worth getting into here) the resulting 'clip' of DNA does only what it did before. \n\nLike it or not, you will never find a credible source that claims otherwise. It is very easy to find millions of junk science claims to the contrary, on the world wide web. YOU WILL NOT find them within the annals of any respected science journal.
Avatar of: James Williams

James Williams

Posts: 3

November 4, 2008

?Too bad the author didn't try to address the question posed in his title.?\n\nThe title is down to a sub editor rather than me as an author, but to address the question, for me what makes a science ?science? is that which provides an explanation of natural phenomena. Strictly speaking, science derived from the Latin ?scientia? just means ?knowledge?. As such it can be applied to almost anything, hence we have, for example, political science. This, however is not useful. Science has taken on a meaning in society that includes things like biology, chemistry and physics and a plethora of other ?disciplines?. At the edges there are ?sciences? whose inclusion in a common definition of science is much and sometimes hotly debated by the community of scientists. Take intelligent design for example some argue that it is science. I think that it is not as it appeals to the supernatural and in some ways is anti-knowledge preferring to state that instead of there being explanations for how the natural world operates there is no explanation other than a mysterious unknowable, unprovable ?designer?.\n\n?I might ask, similarly, what is the common factor that makes information theory, Newton's theory of gravity and the theory of evolution all theories??\n\nWhat makes a scientific theory ?a theory? is that it is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses. It is generally agreed though not always, and not by all scientists sometimes. It is still open to testing and may, should evidence be found that contradicts the theory, be open to change or even rejection.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

November 14, 2008

Just a comment that I hope you make it clear to students that words like "fact" and "theory" have different meanings depending on the context. When your average person uses "fact" in the common way, they aren't incorrect, but when they use it that way on your test, they are. Sometimes students just don't understand those distinctions unless the teacher really makes a point of explaining them, and I hope you do.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

December 30, 2008

I have two stories to tell.\n First - solution to EGG CAME FIRST OR CHICK CAME FIRST.\nSOLUTION - ASK THE QUESTION IF YOU BELEIVE IN GOD OR SCIENCE. iF YOU BELIEVE IN GOD THEN CHICK CAME FIRST (SINCE GOD CAN CREATE ANYTHING FROM SCRATCH) IF YOU BELIEVE IN SCIENCE THEN EGG CAME FIRST (SINCE ANYTHING NEW WILL ONLY SHOWUP IN THE NEXT CYCLE)\n\nwhats the point - I dont know if god exists or not, personally, it suits me when its comfortable for me. but here the existance explains my view (is it theory or hypothesis or fact).\n\nSECOND - A VERY LEARNED MAN WHO IS GOOD IN MATH GOES AROUND EACH KINGDOM AND CHALLENGES THE KING TO BRING HIS BEST IN HIS KINGDOM TO COMPETE WITH HIM AND IF HE WINS THE KINGDOM IS HIS. THIS MAN WINS OVER ALL THE KINGDOM IN HIS PATH AND ONE DAY A YOUNG CHILD WHO IS PLAYING ON A SAND BOX STOPS HIM AND ASKS CAN YOU TELL ME HOW MANY SAND PARTICLES ARE THERE IN MY FIST (IMAGINE HOW TIGHT HIS FIST CAN HOLD) WITHOUT COUNTING. THE LEARNERD MAN GETS HIS BEST LESSON AND GIVES BACK ALL THE NATIONS AND GOES BACK TO LEARNING.\n\nwhats the point? - turning the switch lets you to turn the bulb on is the point is theory, hypothesis, facts are so muddles in todays world (wiht all its pace) that you have to allow the students to have certain level of doubts in theory and hypothesis. One can beleive that newton theory is right because it withstood time and analysis. but can you extend to everything thats in todays world. Honestly I dont think so. \nI think understanding is the key to science, to that extent the article makes the point, aiding the students in acquring knowledge is very important even if its tough.
Avatar of: Rafe Champion

Rafe Champion

Posts: 1

December 30, 2008

The late Peter Medawar wrote some good popular essays to correct some of the most widespread errors among scientists who have no insight into the way the process works.\nhttp://www.the-rathouse.com/Medawar_PlutoRepublic.html\n\nHowever I like to say that scientists who approach their problems in a relentlessly critical and imaginative way probably don't need to learn much about the history and philosophy of science because most what is taught on those topics does as much harm as good!
Avatar of: John Lowbridge

John Lowbridge

Posts: 1

December 31, 2008

While the proposition of the final sentence of this piece has merit, the preceding portion of the final paragraph shoots the entire argument in the foot in the conflation of debates such as those of creationism and man-made (and man-controllable)climate change for the purpose of stifling both.\n\n"climate change deniers"? Just who and what does that cover, and what is being denied? The silly, uninformative, phrase points out the folly of demanding "scientific" literacy when simple unqualified literacy is absent.\n\nI agree with the dude in essence but he'd do well to examine the control of bias. That's scientific, ain't it?
Avatar of: Evelyn Haskins

Evelyn Haskins

Posts: 5

January 8, 2009

Just as general comment re "terminology" (following on from theory versus hypothesis versus fact and data, etc).\n\nBy far the biggest problem that I have come across, as both a teacher and user of science/scientific articles, is with regard to the use of terminology.\n\nA lot of "idiom" as used by science educators is very misleading. I had a discussion with a tertiary instructor about the use of the "idiom" w.r.t. evolutionary theory; expressions such "a plant grows taller, because it wants to reach the light".\n I protested that this gave a misleading impression re the reason for plants growing taller and suggested that the expression be replace by "tall plants survive in greater numbers because they reach the light better than shorter plants, and therefor leave more descendants" (or similar).\n\nThe response was that this was "normal terminology" and that everyone "understood it".\n\nI maintained, and still maintain, that such misleading terms are why there is still so much resistance to evolutionary theory. The educators are misleading naive students.\n\nAs I pointed out at the time, those of us at the coal face of secondary teaching have our work cut out disabusing students that "animals breathe in oxygen and breath out carbon dioxide, and plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen". We simply do not need otherwise 'authoritative' sources telling our students that plants "want" to do anything. Kids are not stupid, they know that 'plants' cannot 'want' -- they don't have a brain. Therefore evolutionary theory is crackers!"!\n\n:-(\n\nEeeee. I loved teaching. Just didn't love disciplining.\n\nEvelyn H\n
Avatar of: Robert Wendell

Robert Wendell

Posts: 22

May 9, 2009

Please forgive the typo in "their are" instead of "there are" in the quote from myself below:\n\n"A gene modification that changes hair color could conceivably change the shape of a limb. Their are many real examples of just such situations. " \n\nWith regard to your quote of that and your reply, I was admittedly going to extremes in the specifics of my example. First, I am not a genetic scientist, but a very scientifically literate layman with a background mainly in physics, which is, of course, quite a different discipline. However, for what it may be worth, I bring your attention to the following:\n\n"Quantitative trait locus (QTL) - The set of genes that governs the quantity of a trait that is not completely determined by any one gene acting alone."\n\n"Quantitative trait - A genetic trait that is determined by multiple interacting loci, and for which there is a range of phenotypes between phenotypic extremes."\n\nBoth quoted from http://www.mhhe.com/biosci/pae/glossaryq.html\n\nThese definitions imply to me an understanding gleaned from a variety of sources which are too numerous and distant in time for me to provide citations. This understanding is that genetic modification is not as simple as a one-to-one correspondence between genes and what we may perceive on the surface as a single trait. This also implies to me that a single gene may contribute to more than one trait. I have also run across the phrase "trait overlap" and "overlapping traits" in numerous sources concerned with genetics, although in most instances the overlaps were between or among populations, which clearly would not apply to this issue. \n\nIf I am wrong in these conclusions, I am happy to receive correction. I'm not one to cling to misinformation simply because it supports what I would like to believe.

Follow The Scientist

icon-facebook icon-linkedin icon-twitter icon-vimeo icon-youtube
Advertisement
RayBiotech
RayBiotech

Stay Connected with The Scientist

  • icon-facebook The Scientist Magazine
  • icon-facebook The Scientist Careers
  • icon-facebook Neuroscience Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Genetic Research Techniques
  • icon-facebook Cell Culture Techniques
  • icon-facebook Microbiology and Immunology
  • icon-facebook Cancer Research and Technology
  • icon-facebook Stem Cell and Regenerative Science
Advertisement
Mettler Toledo
Mettler Toledo
Advertisement
PITTCON
PITTCON
Life Technologies