The “nature of science” has become a hot topic in the education establishment in recent years. The feeling is that children need to learn that science is a rational process, and not a list of empirical facts. Because science classes generally present our current understanding of the world, the two are linked in most people’s minds. In fact, our scientific understanding of the world (or life, or the universe) is not science, but the results produced by science.
Most branches of science are given names ending in -ology, a suffix meaning “the study of”. By study, we do not mean the memorization of known facts. Certainly, that’s how many students spend their evenings in preparation for tests, but that isn’t actually science. Known facts are tools, a starting place from which to work from, so that we don’t have to start over from scratch every generation. What is meant by “study”, however, is the continuing evaluation of known facts for a deeper understanding, and the accumulation of new facts (data) through experimentation.
As the total amount of data continues to expand, evidence is sometimes provided to overturn old interpretations of the facts. For this reason, our scientific understanding of the world is dynamic. During a lifetime, our understandings may change many times. To some, this may appear to indicate that science is “wrong”, “meaningless”, or even “useless”. While it can certainly be frustrating that scientists don’t always produce “ultimate truth” each and every time they set foot in the lab, the simple truth is that science is a growing process, and wise scientists never assume that they have or ever will have gained a complete understanding of any subject.
The knowledge and understanding that science has produced has allowed a myriad of advances in technology. Electronics, medicines, machines, plastics – all have a background in the application of knowledge generated by science. Better yet, gains in understanding often lead to further advances. The ability to manipulate a beam of electrons, for instance, not only led to the invention of television, but to the electron microscope, which allowed advances on many fronts, both biological and physical. Other discoveries have since led to better televisions (LCD and plasma, for instance), so it is obvious that older technology can become obsolete. Technology is not science, however, but only an application of the knowledge generated by science. Science is obviously quite healthy and continuing to advance, else the new technologies could not come to fruition.
Science, by its very nature, is dynamic. It is forward-looking and driven by questions, not answers. The nature of science is such that every fact, every conclusion ever reached, is not an end, but a beginning. Science is the search for answers, or, if you prefer, the rational search for answers is science. The nature of science is such that it always leads to more questions, so it can never become obsolete. Every small child has an intuitive understanding of this. They know that the ultimate question is “Why?”, and that no answer to that question is ever truly complete.