The nature of science

A recent article in the prestigious British journal Nature reveals the startling discovery that insects have been part of the Earth’s fauna for 20 million years longer than was formerly believed.

The remains of this primitive bug, fossilized in translucent rock, has been dated at some 400 million years old. 379-million-year-old insect parts had previously been considered the oldest insect known to science. This serves to illustrate that science is fluid and subject to change and revision as new discoveries are made.

Many individuals have a misunderstanding of what science really is and how scientific principles and laws are developed.

Science is a specialized discipline within philosophy, which is Greek for “love of wisdom.” The purpose of science is not to find “facts” or discover what is the truth, but, rather, to formulate and use theories to solve problems and ultimately to organize, unify, and explain the material aspects of the universe.

Good scientists never use “fact,” “proof,” and “truth,” because these words may be easily interpreted to mean absolutes, and nothing in science is deemed absolute. Science deals only with theories and relative truth—a temporary correctness so far as can be perceived by the rational mind at the present time.

Science attempts to answer such questions as what are the structural units that make up the bodies of animals, what are the physical units of inheritance, and how does a fish breathe under water? It is not within the realm of science to look for answers to such questions as what is the purpose of human existence, what is love, or the existence of a higher power.

These sorts of questions are best left to philosophers to answer. Philosophers are not bound to a rigid code known as the Scientific Method, which good scientists must use in their work.

Scientists must employ sensual observation and extensive experimentation to arrive at a tentative answer to a problem, while a philosopher does not need to provide experimental evidence for his beliefs, but can rely on intuition and metaphysical thoughts to arrive at an answer.

To be valid, scientific work must be able to be replicated by others. Philosophers are not bound by this requirement.

Scientific theories and laws develop in the following manner: Suppose a biologist has an idea that all insects have six legs.

First, he must gather data to support this notion. He examines all the insects he can and finds they do, in fact, have six legs. He then forms a hypothesis that states all insects have six legs.

After a period of time, it is pointed out to him that immature insects may have no legs or more than six. He must then amend his hypothesis to say all adult insects have six legs.

Years go by, and no one finds an adult insect that does not sport six legs, and eventually the hypothesis becomes a theory.

A theory is something that in all probability is true, but the door is always left ajar (recall that nothing in science is absolute) as sometime in the future an adult insect may be found that does not have six legs.

A scientist does not say “The sun will rise tomorrow.” He says, “ Based on all previous evidence, it is quite probable the sun will rise tomorrow.”

After a long period of time, a scientific theory that has basically remained successfully unchallenged will become known as a scientific law.

The theories of gravity and thermodynamics, for example, are now considered to be scientific laws. The vast majority of scientists now consider Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species by means of natural selection to be on the verge of becoming a biological law.

Though Darwin was unable to explain how certain seminal points in his theory occurred, for example, the mechanism of the inheritance of advantageous variations, subsequent research has supplied the necessary explanations.

Difficulty arises when individuals mix religion, a branch of philosophy, with science. Religious beliefs cannot be subjected to the scientific method, and are therefore out of the scope of science.

The teaching of the Darwinian theory of the evolution of species should be done in a science class, while the Genesis account of how all species were created in a six-day period should be taught in a religion class.

Apples and oranges, as we know, do not mix.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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