Monday, April 25, 2011

PhD 2.1: What is Science? Who is a Scientist? – The discipline

What is science?

This is a very good question. When I ask my middle school aged children, they think of science class in school. They think of test tubes, bubbling liquids, and cutting open small animals. Others may think of science as the thing that isn’t religion, a secular process that is seeking to undo religion, as though science were out to eliminate religion, spirituality, and faith. There are some who revere science and equate it with truth. If it is scientific, it is good enough for them.

Well, science really isn’t any of these things. Science is not limited to a few hard science methodologies, it is not hell-bent on destroying religion, and it is not the arbiter of truth. Science is more complex, less sinister, and more humble than any of the above caricatures.

Science is a way to ask and respond to questions. Science is always asking, “How could we know this better than we already do?”  and the science goes about finding a way (method) for responding to the question.

It should be stated that science doesn’t really set out to answer questions. Answers are so final in nature. Answers tend to end conversations. Science is not interested in ending conversations, but rather it is interested in just the opposite. Science wants to keep the conversations going. So, science responds to questions. Responses are more tentative than answers. Responses assume whole lot less than answers. Answers had better be right while responses can be what represents good thinking.

Science could be defined as a discipline meant to keep the conversation about knowledge going. Questions that inspire responses which bring about more questions which inspire even better responses and so forth.

Science is a fun discipline because it is essentially a process of having ideas (theory) that you try to figure out a way to test (methodology) to see how much of the idea is not supported (results) and then ponder the implications (discussion). Children do this sort of thing all the time. I did when I was a kid.

I did a science experiment once as a kid, although I thought I was playing and getting into mischief. My buddy had a toy called a “Stretch Arm Strong,” a doll whose limbs would stretch when pulled. We knew he could stretch (review of empirical literature), but was he unbreakable (theory – ideas that go past the edge of knowledge)? If enough pressure were used to stretch the arms, they would break (hypothesis). We tried to break him (methodology). Our first effort to break him failed. My friend was stronger than I was, so he pulled on both arms in the opposite direction. The arms of the “Stretch” extended as far as my friend’s arms, but did not break. We then tried a second attempt (there no one perfect methodology to test a theory). We got more clever (advanced methodology – we created a methodology that this question required). We knew that there were ways to exert more pressure on “Stretch,” so we did (Limitations of first experiment). We placed his torso on a strong tree branch, with one arm on one side of the branch and one arm on the other side of the branch. I pulled on one arm and my friend pulled on the other arm. We both put the full weight of our bodies into this effort as we pulled down on the arms. The arms stretched downward as the torso of “Stretch” remained on the limb. Finally, his arm broke. His  doll flesh split open (results - hypothesis supported). But there was also an unexpected finding. We learned that “stretch” was full of thick goo that was so sticky it was like superglue in gel form. We had to deal not only with the success of our intended finding, but also the surprise and problem of our unintended finding (discussion).

Science is a discipline, but it is also a natural approach to child-like curiosity. Maybe to become really good in the discipline of science, one must retain, restore, or rekindle their natural child-like curiosity. Science at its best innocently asks questions and innocently finds ways to respond to those questions. How could that be sinister?


{Pure} Essence said...

A very open take on science... unfortunately in a world that needs certainties, Science has found a hard core definition that includes exactness. In a way, many scientists today are engaged in the finding of truths* ( read here answers that are definite) rather than engaging and enjoying the journey that could actually generate more knowledge they settle for what seems to be the popular quest. I find that push in psychology research and in how "evidence based" approaches/models, become the "vogue" or trend in treatment. In a way if Psychology is going to be a science ( as understood in popular domain) we need to provide answers... if it is to be an art... then we can actually enjoy the journey... and I am for the Journey really. :)

Glad that I visit your blog... I will be reading...

4/25/2011 12:26:00 PM

{Pure} Essence said...

Sorry I had to delete the other one... I was actually trying to edit and apparently it does not let you do that :).... live and learn! :)

Fajita said...

Yeah! A Gaby comment.

I am not convinced that we live in a world that needs certainties. We live in a world that lusts for certainties and is disappointed (an even injured sometimes) when what we thought was certain was not.

When certainty is arrived at, there is no need to look for anything else. I am glad our certainty over shock treatments for people suffering mental illness has waned quite a bit. I am afraid of the certainties of drug treatments.

I do not believe psychological, or science in general, has the tools to arrive at certainty... answers... truth.

The best we have is quantitative and qualitative narratives for creating knowledge (not truth).

That said, I believe that we should use the very best methods available to create the best knowledge that we can and be careful about how we talk about it all - meaning confident, but humble.

And there you go, I went on blaqbbering again.

{Pure} Essence said...

Sorry I had to delete the other one... I was actually trying to edit and apparently it does not let you do that :).... live and learn! :)