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What is the Nature of Science?

What is the Nature of Science?

What is the nature of science?  Science stands at the crossroads of empirical fact-finding, logic and imagination.  It occupies a space that allows for creativity and problem solving through the lens of experimentation and structured inquiry. The nature of science is a conduit through which we can bring the complex phenomena of the world within our very human grasp.

The nature of science posits that the natural world is understandable. It explains how scientists answer questions posed by observing the natural world and acknowledges the role creativity plays in science. It acknowledges that scientific knowledge is based upon evidence, which it can change over time, and that creativity plays an important role in science. Understanding the nature of science is a critical aspect of science education and necessary for achieving scientific literacy.

Although no single universal step-by-step scientific method captures the complexity of doing science, a number of shared values and perspectives characterize a scientific approach to understanding nature. Among these are a demand for naturalistic explanations supported by empirical evidence that are, at least in principle, testable against the natural world. Other shared elements include observations, rational argument, inference, skepticism, peer review and replicability of work.

Although ‘creativity’ may not be the first idea to come to mind when thinking about the nature of science, in fact, science must be creative!  Creativity is a vital, yet personal, ingredient in the production of scientific knowledge.  Science is about testing hypotheses, which are formulated, more often than not, as educated guesses, based on observations, borne from inquisitive and creative minds.

The scientific questions asked, the observations made, and the conclusions in science are to some extent influenced by the existing state of scientific knowledge, the social and cultural context of the researcher and the observer's experiences and expectations.  However, the nature of science is based squarely on its insistence on empirical evidence. Over time, as scientists gather additional evidence scientific theories evolve.  These theories reflect an increasingly better picture of how and why our world behaves or reacts.

A primary goal of science is the formation of laws and theories, which are terms with very specific meanings.

·       Laws are generalizations or universal relationships related to the way that some aspect of the natural world behaves under certain conditions.

·       Theories are inferred explanations of some aspect of the natural world. Theories do not become laws even with additional evidence. They explain laws. However, not all scientific laws have accompanying explanatory theories.

·       Well-established laws and theories must:

o   be internally consistent and compatible with the best available evidence;

o   be successfully tested against a wide range of applicable phenomena and evidence;

o   possess appropriately broad and demonstrable effectiveness in further research.

 

The history of science reveals both evolutionary and revolutionary changes. With new evidence and interpretation, newer ideas replace or supplement old ideas.  Once the world was thought to be flat, and now we know that it is round.  Our understanding of the nature of Earth changed as scientists observed new evidence. This is the nature of science.  Science is not satisfied with current ideas.  Rather it strives to constantly improve, clarify, and supplant old “truths” with new ones.  Or, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson put it, “Scientific inquiry shouldn't stop just because a reasonable explanation has apparently been found.”  This is why it is so important to raise a new generation of inquisitive young scientists.

Thus, we can see that scientific knowledge is simultaneously durable and changeable. Having confidence in scientific knowledge is reasonable while realizing that theories from such knowledge may be abandoned or modified in light of new evidence or reconceptualization of prior evidence and knowledge.

A final characteristic about scientific knowledge is that scientists gain this knowledge via observation of the natural world, which makes it immediately accessible with the right training and tools.  The nature of science is to question, model, explain, and work with the world—solving problems from the microscopic to the global.

 

 


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