The Dynamic Nature of Science & Natural Phenomena

Instructor: Stephanie Gorski

Steph has a PhD in Entomology and teaches college biology and ecology.

In this lesson we'll talk about how science is done and how science corrects errors. We'll also talk about the difference between a hypothesis and a theory.

The Process of Science

Some of the best scientists ask some of the dumbest questions. In fact, being unafraid to ask ''dumb'' questions is part of what makes science so great! Most scientists are probably more-or-less clever, but having a high IQ is neither necessary nor sufficient for science. Science works because the process of doing science sifts out wrong ideas over time.

Have you ever heard someone say something like ''Well, scientists used to believe smoking was safe, so science can't be trusted''? Usually that's someone who has heard about a scientific study they didn't like. What they usually fail to consider is that when the scientific community makes a mistake, the dynamic nature of science itself is what eventually corrects that error.

Science is not about providing a final answer to everything that will ever happen. Instead, it embraces and works with uncertainty, new evidence, and advancing technologies to sharpen our understanding of reality. At its heart, science seeks to explain natural phenomena, the events that occur all around us but may not be created by us. Natural phenomena cover a huge range of events, from biological processes to natural disasters.

Hypotheses and Theories

If a scientist has an idea that bacteria will grow faster in Solution A than Solution B, he or she will say that they have a hypothesis. Even with just a humble hypothesis, they should be able to articulate why they believe that the bacteria will behave as it does.

When scientists talk about a theory, they're not talking about something that just occurred to them five minutes ago. Instead, they're talking about something that has broad experimental support from many different experiments in different areas, helps unify the field, and is supported by most if not all scientists in the field. A scientific theory should have durability, which means that it has withstood the test of time and repeated experiments.

For example, the theory of evolution is a theory because there is over a century and a half worth of experimental evidence behind it! Without the theory of evolution, a paleontologist, an agricultural scientist, an epidemiologist, and so on would simply be unable to make sense of their findings.

How to Write a Scientific Journal Article

Scientists design experiments, tests that manipulate a single variable in a system to see how it reacts. When designing experiments, scientists have to do their best to keep everything in the experiment exactly the same between treatments, except for the one thing they are trying to test.

When scientists are done with their experiment, they have a lot of raw data. Our scientist in the example may count how many bacterial colonies grew from Solution A and see how if differs from the number of bacterial colonies in Solution B. From there, our scientist has to decide if that difference is significant. Significance is a term used in statistics to indicate that your values are different enough that they probably didn't occur by sheer coincidence.

If our scientist wants to write a journal article about their findings, they will write a detailed methodology that tells precisely what they did and how. The methodology should be as detailed as possible, since other scientists should be able to replicate the experiment and get the same results.

They will tell about the data they collected and what they think their data means. This means that a scientist will have to accept uncertainty. For example, maybe our scientist thinks that Solution A grows bacteria faster because it has more of an important nutrient. Our scientist has to do their best to justify their explanation of the results.

However, our scientist knows that they could be wrong about the conclusion and will probably write the conclusion with very tentative language; you'll see a lot of articles that say things like ''our experiment indicates that under these conditions…'' and not many articles that say things like ''our experiment proves this.'' This tentativeness in science expresses the concept that an idea can be modified in the face of new, compelling evidence.

How Mistakes Are Found

A reviewer at the National Institutes of Health
A reviewer at the National Institutes of Health

Our scientist will then send their paper to a scientific journal for peer review. Peer review is quality control for scientific experiments. Researchers who have areas of expertise that are very similar to our scientist's will carefully read through the paper and make suggestions for improvement. The researchers will decide, as a group, whether our scientist's paper meets the standards for good science. If so, it will be published in a journal, and the paper will be available for other scientists.

If the experiment is of interest to the general scientific community, other scientists will want to explore the idea further and design experiments based on the results our scientist found. If somehow, our scientist made a mistake and Solution A doesn't really grow bacteria any better, these subsequent experiments will sort this out.

Disappointment

Sometimes, scientists won't get the answers they expect. That's okay! This can lead to disappointment or to an answer that is even more interesting than what they were expecting.

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