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Biology LibreTexts

1.5: Understanding Scientific Ideas

One of the difficulties in understanding scientific ideas and their implications is that these ideas build upon a wide range of observations and are intertwined with one another. One cannot really understand biological systems without understanding the behavior of chemical reaction systems, which in turn requires an understanding of molecules, which rests upon an understanding of how atoms (matter) and energy behave and interact. To better grasp some of the challenges involved in teaching and learning science, we recommend that you watch a short video interview with the physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988).26 In it, he explains the complexity of understanding something as superficially (but not really) simple as how two magnets repel or attract one another.

It is our working premise that to understand a topic (or discipline), it is important to know the key observations and common rules upon which basic conclusions and working concepts are based. To test one’s understanding, it is necessary for you as a student to be able to approach a biological question, construct plausible claims for how (and why) the system behaves the way it does, based on various facts, observations, or explicit presumptions that logically support your claim. You also need to present your model to others, knowledgeable in the topic, to get their feedback, to answer (rather than ignore or disparage) their questions, and address their criticisms and concerns. Sometimes you will be wrong because your knowledge of the facts is incomplete, your understanding or application of general principles is inaccurate, or your logic is faulty. It is important to appreciate that generating coherent scientific explanations and arguments takes time and lots of practice. We hope to help you learn how to do this through useful coaching and practice. In the context of various questions, we (and your fellow students) will attempt to identify where you produce a coherent critique, explanation or prediction, and where you fall short. It is the ability to produce coherent arguments, explanations, and/or predictions based on observations and concepts correctly applied in the context of modern biology, that we hope to help you master in this course.

Questions to answer and ponder

  • A news story reports that spirit forces influence the weather. Produce a set of questions whose answers would enable you to decide whether the report was scientifically plausible.
  • What features would make a scientific model ugly?27
  • How would you use Occam's razor to distinguish between two equally accurate models?
  • Generate a general strategy that will enable you to classify various pronouncements as credible (that is, worth thinking about) or nonsense.
  • Does the inability to measure something unambiguously make it unreal? Explain what is real.
  • How should we, as a society, deal with the tentative nature of scientific knowledge?
  • If “science” concludes that free will is an illusion, would you accept it and behave like a robot?


26 Feynman & magnets:

27 See Gell-Mann- Truth, beauty ... physics


  • Michael W. Klymkowsky (University of Colorado Boulder) and Melanie M. Cooper (Michigan State University) with significant contributions by Emina Begovic & some editorial assistance of Rebecca Klymkowsky.