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Geosciences LibreTexts

1.1: What is Science?

  • Page ID
    6839
  • Scientists seek to understand the fundamental principles that explain natural patterns and processes. Science is more than just a body of knowledge, science provides a means to evaluate and create new knowledge without bias [1]. Scientists use objective evidence over subjective evidence, to reach sound and logical conclusions.

    An objective observation is without personal bias and the same by all individuals. Humans are biased by nature, so they cannot be completely objective; the goal is to be as unbiased as possible. A subjective observation is based on a person’s feelings and beliefs and is unique to that individual.

    The waterfall is in a valley
    Figure: This is Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in Yellowstone National Park. An objective statement about this would be: “The picture is of a waterfall.” A subjective statement would be: “The picture is beautiful.” An inference would be “The waterfall is there because of erosion.”

    Another way scientists avoid bias is by using quantitative over qualitative measurements whenever possible. A quantitative measurement is expressed with a specific numerical value. Qualitative observations are general or relative descriptions. For example, describing a rock as red or heavy is a qualitative observation. Determining a rock’s color by measuring wavelengths of reflected light or its density by measuring the proportions of minerals it contains is quantitative. Numerical values are more precise than general descriptions, and they can be analyzed using statistical calculations. This is why quantitative measurements are much more useful to scientists than qualitative observations.

    A person is looking into the canyon.
    Figure: Canyons like this, carved in the deposit left by the May 18th, 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens, are sometimes used by purveyors of pseudoscience as evidence for the Earth being very young. In reality, the non-lithified volcanic deposit is carved much more easily than other canyons like the Grand Canyon.

    Establishing truth in science is difficult because all scientific claims are falsifiable, which means any initial hypothesis may be tested and proven false. Only after exhaustively eliminating false results, competing ideas, and possible variations does a hypothesis become regarded as a reliable scientific theory. This meticulous scrutiny reveals weaknesses or flaws in a hypothesis and is the strength that supports all scientific ideas and procedures. In fact, proving current ideas are wrong has been the driving force behind many scientific careers.

    Falsifiability separates science from pseudoscience. Scientists are wary of explanations of natural phenomena that discourage or avoid falsifiability. An explanation that cannot be tested or does not meet scientific standards is not considered science, but pseudoscience. Pseudoscience is a collection of ideas that may appear scientific but does not use the scientific method. Astrology is an example of pseudoscience. It is a belief system that attributes the movement of celestial bodies to influencing human behavior. Astrologers rely on celestial observations, but their conclusions are not based on experimental evidence and their statements are not falsifiable. This is not to be confused with astronomy which is the scientific study of celestial bodies and the cosmos [2,3].

    Many people are standing around and talking.
    Figure: Geologists share information by publishing, attending conferences, and even going on field trips, such as this trip to western Utah by the Utah Geological Association in 2009.

    Science is also a social process. Scientists share their ideas with peers at conferences, seeking guidance and feedback. Research papers and data submitted for publication are rigorously reviewed by qualified peers, scientists who are experts in the same field. The scientific review process aims to weed out misinformation, invalid research results, and wild speculation. Thus, it is slow, cautious, and conservative. Scientists tend to wait until a hypothesis is supported by an overwhelming amount of evidence from many independent researchers before accepting it as a scientific theory [46].