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Apologetics Press :: Sensible Science

How Does Science Work?
by Bert Thompson, Ph.D.

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It is my intent here to give science some “sustained attention.” Science may be divided into various categories: (a) formal sciences [math, logic]; (b) physical sciences [physics, biology, psychology, etc.]; and (c) social sciences [sociology, political science, etc.]. Some prefer to categorize the sciences more narrowly into only two divisions: (a) physical sciences [physics, chemistry, etc.]; and (b) life sciences [botany, zoology, microbiology, etc.]. Regardless of the method of division, physics remains the broadest in scope and application, because it deals with physical properties of all bodies, and all bodies have physical properties. Chemistry would have the second broadest application, since all material properties have chemical properties. Biology would be third since it concerns only living things. Psychology would be fourth, as it deals only with creatures capable of sensation. Sociology would be fifth because it deals only with sentient beings organized into societies (see Hull, 1974).

THE ASSUMPTIONS OF SCIENCE

Science is built upon at least five assumptions that are based on common sense: (1) nature is understandable; there is a real world; (2) all nature is subject to the same laws (uniformity); (3) measurable causes underlie observable effects; (4) the simplest explanation is probably the correct one [a concept known as the principle of parsimony, and sometimes referred to as “Occam’s Razor”]; and (5) the unfamiliar is explainable in terms of the familiar, through analogy.

Once these assumptions have been stated and conceded, the scientist then is ready to perform his task. It has long been recognized that science attempts to accomplish its objectives by pursuing a procedure known as “the scientific method.” But how does the scientific method work? In his work, Science and Method, Henri Poincaré‚ observed:

The scientific method consists in observation and experiment. If the scientist had an infinity of time at his disposal, it would be sufficient to say to him, “Look, and look carefully.” But since he has not the time to look at everything, and above all to look carefully, and since it is better not to look at all than to look carelessly, he is forced to make a selection (1952).

Bertrand Russell, elaborating on this same idea, said:

In arriving at a scientific law there are three main stages: The first consists in observing the significant facts; the second in arriving at a hypothesis, which, if it is true, would account for these facts; the third is deducing from this hypothesis consequences which can be tested by observation. If the consequences are verified, the hypothesis is provisionally accepted as true, although it will usually require modification later on as a result of the discovery of further facts (1931, p. 57).

John Moore and Harold Slusher, in Biology: A Search For Order In Complexity, summarized the matter as follows:

Steps in the scientific method are usually stated in the following order. When the scientist is especially aware of certain initial observations in one area of study, and is perplexed about certain aspects, he states a problem that no one else has studied or solved. The scientist gathers many facts that may have a bearing on the problem. He then forms an hypothesis, or estimate, that might explain the problem. More facts are gathered and their relevance to the hypothesis is carefully weighed. If possible, experiments are performed. If the facts gathered are consistent with the suggested explanation, or hypothesis, the scientist concludes that his explanation is valid, and he publishes his results. If the suggested explanation (hypothesis) becomes established as a result of efforts by many research workers who repeated the steps, reached the same conclusion, and ruled out other explanations—the explanation is called a law. A law, then, is primarily a very well established hypothesis that has been extensively tested (1977, pp. 5-6).

THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD

Let us now examine each of the steps in the scientific method.

Observation. Douglas Marsland has noted: “The primary basis of all scientific thinking is observation” (1969, p. 12). Paul Weisz, in his text, Elements of Biology, stated: “All science begins with observation, the first step of the scientific method. At once this delimits the scientific domain; something that cannot be observed cannot be investigated by science” (1965, p. 40). Henry Morris has agreed: “Science thus involves facts which are observed and laws which have been demonstrated” (1966, p. 151).

Statement and Definition of Problem. Scientific inquiry is characterized by what is called the “hypothetico-deductive” model. The scientist notes a problem based on his observations and states the problem as he wishes to investigate it. He then formulates his hypothesis, and gathers facts to either substantiate or negate it.

Formation of Hypothesis. Francisco J. Ayala has suggested: “A hypothesis is empirical or scientific only if it can be tested by experience.... A hypothesis or theory which cannot be, at least in principle, falsified by empirical observations and experiments does not belong to the realm of science” (1974, p. 700). David Hull, in his book, Philosophy of Biological Science, has commented: “First and foremost...a scientific hypothesis must be testable. Ideally the hypothesis to be tested is universal in form” (1974, p. 2).

Deduction from Hypothesis of Prediction. John N. Moore observed that “...the heart of the scientific method is the problem-hypothesis-test process. And, necessarily, the scientific method involves predictions. And predictions, to be useful in scientific methodology, must be subject to test empirically” (1973, pp. 23-24). Duane Gish has written:

Thus, for a theory to qualify as a scientific theory, it must be supported by events, processes, or properties which can be observed and the theory must be useful in predicting the outcome of future natural phenomena or laboratory experiments. An additional limitation usually imposed is that the theory must be capable of falsification. That is, it must be possible to conceive of some experiment the failure of which would disprove the theory (1973, pp. 2-3).

Weisz noted: “Deductive logic is used extensively by scientists to obtain predictions from hypotheses.... Most scientists are so accustomed to deductive reasoning that formal construction of ‘if...then...’ statements is unnecessary in setting up experiments” (1965, p. 8). Keeton has pointed out, however, that induction is also a necessary part of the process. “After the scientist has reasoned inductively from the specific to the general (i.e.: from specific factors to general statements), he must reverse his field and reason deductively, from the general to the specific” (1973, p. 2).

Experimentation. A key element in any scientific endeavor is the use of experimentation, since this provides a method by which hypotheses and predictions can be tested. Moore has observed that

...scientific activity involves the search for facts that can be observed or demonstrated, and for laws that have been demonstrated also, by means of trustworthy methods of discovery. And at the core of scientific method or methods is experimental repeatability or reproducibility (1973, pp. 23-26,34).

Morris commented: “...the scientific method involves experimental reproducibility, with like causes producing like effects” (1966, p. 151).

Formation of Theory or Law. A theory is a broadly based, widely accepted hypothesis supported by at least some good experimental evidence. It is considered an accepted answer to explain something unusual. A good scientific theory meets these criteria: (a) it identifies orderly relationships of various and diverse observations; (b) it predicts future outcome; (c) it is modifiable; and (d) it can be used to develop new direction for additional research. A scientific law is “viewed as reflecting actual regularities in nature” (Hull, 1974, p. 3). There are no known exceptions to scientific laws—else they would not be laws (e.g.: Law of Biogenesis, Law of Causality, etc.).

CONCLUSION

George Gaylord Simpson, in speaking of science, remarked:

The important distinction between science and those other systematizations (the arts, philosophy, and theology) is that science is self-testing and self-correcting. The testing and correcting are done by means of observation that can be repeated with essentially the same results by normal persons operating by the same methods and with the same approach (as quoted in Moore, 1973, p. 23).

But, after science has performed its duty, may it then feel free to pronounce “absolute truth” to a waiting world? Unfortunately, the answer is “no,” as Simpson has explained.

We speak in terms of “acceptance,“ “confidence,” and “probability,” not “proof.” If by proof is meant the establishment of eternal and absolute truth, open to no possible exception or modification, then proof has no place in the natural sciences. Alternatively proof in a natural science, such as biology, must be defined as the attainment of a high degree of confidence (1965, p. 16).

Bolton Davidheiser, quoting Simpson, observed:

The eminent George Gaylord Simpson says concerning the inductive nature of the scientific method, “The concept of ‘truth’ in science is thus quite special. It implies nothing eternal and absolute but only a high degree of confidence after adequate self-testing and self-correcting.” Professor Simpson further says that “above the level of triviality there is hardly any scientific subject on which agreement is literally universal.” He says that the most fundamental reason for disagreement in science is the inherent impossibility of complete certainty. He points out that “one fact may disprove a theory and not all facts can be observed, therefore an investigator cannot completely discard the possibility that a discrepant phenomenon may occur.” He further points out that “in any complex situation the data are rarely so complete that only one explanation can conceivably be correct.” In other words, there are likely to be rival theories (1969, p. 11; quotation from Simpson is from his Notes on the Nature of Science, 1962, p. 11; emp. in orig.).

Science, then, as wonderful as it is, does not provide all the answers.

There can be no real conflict between natural science and true religion because their spheres are entirely distinct and separate. Natural science deals with physical entities by abstraction, experiment, and mathematical measurement; while religion is an attitude of trust and love toward an infinite God, which results in a vital experience constituting the essence of religion. Conflicts between these two are always the result of misinterpretation and misrepresentation of one or the other or both, and history abounds with illustrations of all these forms of confusing contradictions. Science and religion, while thus separate, have various relationships which make each the servant of the other. Dean Inge remarks, “We may hope for a time when the science of a religious man will be scientific and religion of a scientific man religious” (Whaling, 1929, pp. 51-52).

True science and true religion are not in conflict. They are, in fact, wholly harmonious. Science is the “looking glass” given to man by God for the purpose of investigating and having dominion over His creation. Properly used, it is a most beneficial tool.

REFERENCES

Ayala, Francisco J. (1974), American Scientist, November/December.

Clark, Gordon H. (1964), The Philosophy of Science (Nutley, NJ: Craig Press).

Davidheiser, Bolton (1969), Evolution and Christian Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed).

Gish, Duane T. (1973), Evolution: The Fossils Say No! (San Diego, CA: Creation-Life Publishers).

Keeton, F. (1973), Elements of Biological Science (New York: W.W. Norton).

Hull, David (1974), Philosophy of Biological Science (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall).

Marsland, Douglas (1969), Principles of Modern Biology (New York: Holt, Rinehart, Winston).

Moore, John N. (1973), American Biology Teacher, January.

Moore, John N. and Harold Slusher (1977), Biology: A Search for Order in Complexity (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

Morris, Henry M. (1966), Studies in the Bible and Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Poincar‚, Henri (1952), Science and Method (New York: Dover).

Russell, Bertrand (1931), The Scientific Outlook (London: Free Press).

Weisz, Paul (1965), Elements of Biology (New York: McGraw-Hill).

Whaling, Thornton (1929), Science and Religion Today (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press).


Originally published in Reason & Revelation, March 1981, 1[3]:11-17.



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