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2.1: What is Science?

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    Like other natural sciences, environmental science gathers knowledge about the natural world. Science is more than just a body of knowledge, science provides a means to evaluate and create new knowledge. The methods of science include careful observation, record keeping, logical and mathematical reasoning, experimentation, and submitting conclusions to the scrutiny of others. Science also requires considerable imagination and creativity; a well-designed experiment is commonly described as elegant or beautiful. Science has considerable practical implications and some science is dedicated to practical applications, such as the prevention of disease (figure \(\PageIndex{a}\)). Other science proceeds largely motivated by curiosity. Whatever its goal, there is no doubt that science has transformed human existence and will continue to do so.

    Microscope view of rod-shaped bacteria
    Figure \(\PageIndex{a}\): Biologists may choose to study Escherichia coli (E. coli), a bacterium that is a normal resident of our digestive tracts but which is also sometimes responsible for disease outbreaks. In this micrograph, the bacterium is visualized using a scanning electron microscope and digital colorization. (credit: Eric Erbe; digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, USDA-ARS)

    There are areas of knowledge, however, to which the methods of science cannot be applied. These include such things as morality, aesthetics, or spirituality. Science cannot investigate these areas because they are outside the realm of material phenomena, the phenomena of matter and energy, and cannot be observed and measured.

    Evidence, Measurements, and Observations

    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. Bias refers to favoring one thing over another, and it can lead to inaccurate results. 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 (figure \(\PageIndex{b}\)).

    The waterfall is in a valley
    Figure \(\PageIndex{b}\): 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.” 

    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.

    Inductive and Deductive Reasoning

    One thing is common to all forms of science: an ultimate goal to know. Curiosity and inquiry are the driving forces for the development of science. Scientists seek to understand the world and the way it operates. Two methods of logical thinking are used: inductive reasoning and deductive reasoning.

    Inductive reasoning is a form of logical thinking that uses related observations to arrive at a general conclusion. This type of reasoning is common in descriptive science. A life scientist such as a biologist makes observations and records them. The raw data can be supplemented with drawings, pictures, photos, or videos. From many observations, the scientist can infer conclusions (inductions) based on evidence. Inductive reasoning involves formulating generalizations inferred from careful observation and the analysis of a large amount of data. Surveying land use (which areas are forested, agricultural, urban, etc.) across the United States and then concluding that forested areas are concentrated in the West is an example of descriptive science. 

    In deductive reasoning, the pattern of thinking moves in the opposite direction as compared to inductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning is a form of logical thinking that uses a general principle or law to forecast specific results. From those general principles, a scientist can extrapolate and predict the specific results that would be valid as long as the general principles are valid. For example, a prediction would be that if the climate is becoming warmer in a region, the distribution of plants and animals should change. Comparisons have been made between distributions in the past and the present, and the many changes that have been found are consistent with a warming climate. Finding the change in distribution is evidence that the climate change conclusion is a valid one. Deductive reasoning, or deduction, is the type of logic used in hypothesis-based science (see below).

    To summarize, inductive reasoning moves from the specific (an observation) to general (conclusion), and deductive reasoning moves from the general (a hypothesis or principle) to the specific (results). 

    Both types of logical thinking are related to the two main pathways of scientific study: descriptive science and hypothesis-based science. Descriptive (or discovery) science aims to observe, explore, and discover, while hypothesis-based science begins with a specific question or problem and a potential answer or solution that can be tested. The boundary between these two forms of study is often blurred, because most scientific endeavors combine both approaches. Observations lead to questions, questions lead to forming a hypothesis as a possible answer to those questions, and then the hypothesis is tested. Thus, descriptive science and hypothesis-based science are in continuous dialogue.

    Science is also a Social Process

    Scientists share their ideas with peers at conferences, seeking guidance and feedback (figure \(\PageIndex{c}\)). 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.

    A man raises his hand at a conference. He sits at a long table surrounded by other attendees.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{c}\): Scientists share information by publishing and attending conferences. The conference shown here focuses on peanut and mycotoxin (harmful chemicals produced by fungi) research. Image by Sharon Dowdy (CC-BY-NC).

    Characteristics of Scientists

    There is nothing mysterious or even particularly unusual about the things that scientists do. There are many ways to work on scientific problems. They all require common sense. Beyond that, they all display certain features that are especially - but not uniquely - characteristic of science.

    • Skepticism — Good scientists use highly-critical standards in the judging of evidence. They approach data, claims, and theories (ideally, even their own!) with healthy doses of skepticism.
    • Tolerance of uncertainty  — Scientists often work for years - sometimes for an entire career - trying to understand one scientific problem. This often involves finding facts that, for a time, fail to fit into any coherent pattern and that even may support mutually contradictory explanations. Sometimes, as one listens to scientists vigorously defending their views, their confidence seems absolute. But deep in their hearts, they know that their views are based on probabilities and that a new piece of evidence may turn up at any time and force a major shift in their views.
    • Although they certainly have no monopoly on hard work, their willingness to work long hours and years pursuing a problem is the mark of all good scientists. For science is hard work.


    Modified by Melissa Ha from the following sources:

    This page titled 2.1: What is Science? is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Melissa Ha and Rachel Schleiger (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative) .