What is this process we call “science,” which has so dramatically changed the world? Ancient people were more likely to believe in magical and supernatural explanations for natural phenomena such as solar eclipses or thunderstorms. By contrast, scientifically minded people try to figure out the natural world through testing and observation. Specifically, science is the use of systematic observation in order to acquire knowledge. For example, children in a science class might combine vinegar and baking soda to observe the bubbly chemical reaction. These empirical methods are wonderful ways to learn about the physical and biological world. Science is not magic—it will not solve all human problems, and might not answer all our questions about behavior. Nevertheless, it appears to be the most powerful method we have for acquiring knowledge about the observable world. The essential elements of science are as follows:
Systematic observation is the core of science. Scientists observe the world, in a very organized way. We often measure the phenomenon we are observing. We record our observations so that memory biases are less likely to enter into our conclusions. We are systematic in that we try to observe under controlled conditions, and also systematically vary the conditions of our observations so that we can see variations in the phenomena and understand when they occur and do not occur.
Observation leads to hypotheses we can test. When we develop hypothesesand theories, we state them in a way that can be tested. For example, you might make the claim that candles made of paraffin wax burn more slowly than do candles of the exact same size and shape made from bee’s wax. This claim can be readily tested by timing the burning speed of candles made from these materials.
Science is democratic. People in ancient times may have been willing to accept the views of their kings or pharaohs as absolute truth. These days, however, people are more likely to want to be able to form their own opinions and debate conclusions. Scientists are skeptical and have open discussions about their observations and theories. These debates often occur as scientists publish competing findings with the idea that the best data will win the argument.
Science is cumulative. We can learn the important truths discovered by earlier scientists and build on them. Any physics student today knows more about physics than Sir Isaac Newton did even though Newton was possibly the most brilliant physicist of all time. A crucial aspect of scientific progress is that after we learn of earlier advances, we can build upon them and move farther along the path of knowledge.