TECH & SCIENCE

Wangaratta Chronicle - North East Regional Extra - - FRONT PAGE - WITH CHRIS

TAKE a look at your sur­round­ings.

Chances are, your field of view is lit­tered with the prod­ucts of science.

From the build­ings you see, the mode of trans­port you use, the clothes you’re wear­ing, the tools you use, the gad­gets you en­joy, right down to the food and bev­er­ages you con­sume - science has played some piv­otal role in their cre­ation and re­fine­ment.

But what, ex­actly, is science? How do sci­en­tists con­duct re­search and ex­per­i­ments?

There’s quite a lot of mis­in­for­ma­tion out there about the sci­en­tific method, and I hope to clear up a few of these mis­un­der­stand­ings.

The six steps of the sci­en­tific method

When con­duct­ing re­search, sci­en­tists use the sci­en­tific method to col­lect mea­sur­able, em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence in an ex­per­i­ment related to a hy­poth­e­sis (of­ten in the form of an if/then state­ment), the re­sults of which aim to sup­port or con­tra­dict that hy­poth­e­sis.

The six steps are out­lined as fol­lows:

1) Make an ob­ser­va­tion or ob­ser­va­tions.

2) Ask ques­tions about the ob­ser­va­tions and gather in­for­ma­tion.

3) Form a hy­poth­e­sis — a ten­ta­tive de­scrip­tion of what’s been ob­served, and make pre­dic­tions based on that hy­poth­e­sis.

4) Test the hy­poth­e­sis and pre­dic­tions in an ex­per­i­ment that can be re­pro­duced.

5) An­a­lyze the data and draw con­clu­sions; ac­cept or re­ject the hy­poth­e­sis or mod­ify the hy­poth­e­sis if nec­es­sary.

6) Re­pro­duce the ex­per­i­ment un­til there are no dis­crep­an­cies between ob­ser­va­tions and the­ory.

If the ex­per­i­ment is re­pro­duced con­tin­u­ously with no dis­crep­an­cies or con­tra­dic­tions, the hy­poth­e­sis (per­haps along with other related hy­pothe­ses), could go on to form the basis of a sci­en­tific the­ory.

De­duc­tion and in­duc­tion

Peo­ple have two pri­mary modes of rea­son­ing, known as de­duc­tive and in­duc­tive rea­son­ing, and sci­en­tists use both of these modes when con­duct­ing re­search.

De­duc­tive rea­son­ing uses in­for­ma­tion al­ready avail­able (premises) to in­fer a con­clu­sion.

Take this syl­lo­gism as an ex­am­ple: Premise 1: All ap­ples are fruit

Premise 2: A Granny Smith is an ap­ple Con­clu­sion: There­fore, a Granny Smith is a fruit.

This de­duc­tive form of rea­son­ing is also how the sudoku puz­zle on page four works, as well.

In­duc­tive rea­son­ing, on the other hand, goes be­yond the in­for­ma­tion contained in what we al­ready know, and ex­trap­o­lates that knowl­edge into new ar­eas.

We in­duce us­ing gen­er­al­i­sa­tions and analo­gies.

Gen­er­al­i­sa­tions in­clude ob­serv­ing reg­u­lar­i­ties in na­ture and imag­in­ing they are uni­form ev­ery­where – this is, in part, how we cre­ate the so-called laws of na­ture.

Gen­er­al­i­sa­tions also cre­ate classes of things, such as “mam­mals” or “rep­tiles”.

Analo­gies make claims of sim­i­lar­i­ties between two things, and draw con­clu­sions based on these anal­o­gous traits.

For ex­am­ple, a pa­le­on­tol­o­gist might find the fos­silized remains of an ex­tinct an­i­mal that has sharp teeth.

They ob­serve that an­i­mals alive to­day with sharp teeth are car­niv­o­rous, and, us­ing this anal­ogy, they in­duce that the ex­tinct an­i­mal was a car­ni­vore.

Us­ing in­duc­tion and in­fer­ence to ar­rive at the best pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion con­sis­tent with the ev­i­dence, science teaches us more about the world than we could sim­ply de­duce.

Which brings us to…

‘It’s just a the­ory, it hasn’t been proven’.

When some­one in­vokes this phrase to cast doubt upon the va­lid­ity of a body of sci­en­tific work, it’s of­ten per­sua­sive to those who don’t un­der­stand how sci­en­tific the­o­ries are formed.

To the lay­man, a the­ory might sound like a wild guess, based on lit­tle to no ev­i­dence, but this sim­ply isn’t true.

In a nut­shell, a ‘sci­en­tific the­ory’ is an ex­pla­na­tion of an as­pect of the nat­u­ral world, based upon a body of facts that have been rig­or­ously tested through re­pro­ducible ex­per­i­men­ta­tion.

It is the best avail­able, co­he­sive ex­pla­na­tion for that body of facts.

And while it’s true that sci­en­tific the­o­ries aren’t proven, here’s the real kicker - noth­ing in science is ever truly proven.

Not with 100 per­cent cer­tainty. Ad­di­tion­ally, while we all fo­cus on the new dis­cov­er­ies of science, the big­gest role sci­en­tists play in ad­vanc­ing our un­der­stand­ing of the world is to dis­prove hy­pothe­ses and the­o­ries, not prove them.

That’s the true ge­nius of science.

◆ METH­ODS OF IN­QUIRY: Com­mu­ni­cat­ing science ef­fec­tively re­quires more than facts, and an un­der­stand­ing the sci­en­tific method is vi­tally im­por­tant for all of us - es­pe­cially as govern­ments and policy mak­ers shape the di­rec­tion of sci­en­tific re­search and...

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