donald prothero on the nature of science

I’ve just started reading Donald Prothero’s book Evolution: what the fossils say and why it matters. It looks good & certainly captured my attention right from the start. (However, it will probably take me a little while to get through the book as at the moment it’s my pick for when I’m on the stationary bike at the gym. And I could do with getting there more often!)

Anyway, I thought I’d share a couple of paragraphs from right at the start of the book, because they set out so clearly what science is

"Scientists are not characterised by who they are or what they wear, but what they do and how they do it. As Carl Sagan put it, "Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." Scientists are defined not by their lab equipment but by the tools and assumptions they use to understand nature – the scientific method. The scientific method is mentioned even in [primary] school classes, yet most of the public still doesn’t understand it (possibly because the mad scientist Hollywood stereotype is more powerful than the bland material from school). The scientific method involves making observations about the natural world, then coming up with ideas or insights (hypotheses) to explain them. In that regard, the scientific method is similar to many other human endeavours, such as mythology and folk medicine, which observe something and try to come upwith a story for it. But the big difference is that scientists must then test their hypotheses. They must try to find some additional observations or experiemnts that shoot their idea down (falsify it) or support it (corroborate it). if the observations falsify the hypothesis, then scientists must start over again with a new hypothesis, or recheck their observations and make sure that the falsification is correct. If the observations are consistent with the hypothesis, then it is corroborated, but it is not proven true. Instead, the scientific community must continue to keep looking for more observations to test the hypothesis further.

"This is where the public most misunderstands the scientific method. As many philosophers of science (such as Karl Popper) have shown, this cycle of setting up, testing, and falsifying hypotheses is unending. Scientific hypotheses must always be tentative and subject to further testing and can never be regarded as finally true or proven. Science is not about finding final truth, only about testing and refining better and better hypotheses so these hypotheses approach what we think is true about the world. Any time scientists stop testing and trying to falsify their hypotheses, they also stop doing science."

D.R.Prothero (2007, pp 3-4) Evolution: what the fossils say and why it matters. Columbia. 

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