Certainly the fact that there are so many of us, all more or less cooperating and recording what we are doing in ways that can be preserved for examination by anyone interested, has something to do with it. The fruits of scientific, mathematical and engineering studies from Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Chinese, Arabian and other ancient cultures were brought together, translated and disseminated hundreds of years ago, and have been being assimilated, improved upon and extended ever since. The rate of increase in understanding is increasing steadily, and has been for centuries. And now over a million people a year, worldwide, complete a college degree in the natural sciences or engineering. Tools of communication across distance and cultural barriers and time increase more and more rapidly, as do our means of observation and measurement, and our mathematical methods for modeling complex forms and processes. The emergence of English as the universal language of science, technology and commerce may be as important as the development of printing and electronically enhanced ways of communicating and preserving information; and there's no need to theorize about whether the earth is round when anyone can look at the satellite photos themselves. From another perspective, perhaps science seems special because it focuses so often on topics that were formerly believed to be beyond the realm of human understanding. When communities used to assign responsibility for important aspects of the natural world to supernatural forces or the whims of gods, maybe that was where the story ended. However, when people began to explore the details of the history of the earth, for example, by thinking logically about what they could see in the rocks, the results were quite amazing. Even such a simple thing as the fact that the rocks on top are younger than the ones below was once an important discovery! In other words, scientific knowledge is created by people who are capable of viewing at least some of their current beliefs as beliefs that might possibly be improved. This in itself leads to new combinations of ideas and skills. For example, when Newton began to consider our sun and its planets as a mechanical system, using principles Galileo had developed by studying the movement of objects in his laboratory, together with the elliptical orbits provided by Kepler, the result was quite astounding. However, the ability to think clearly about mechanical systems was no new invention; what was new was applying that clarity to the movements of heavenly bodies. Mechanical thinking, though, is not the missing "scientific method." Other kinds of problems require other kinds of thinking. Quantum mechanics might just as well be called "quantum no-mechanics," and chaotic phenomena have shocked investigators since Henri Poincaré first discovered them. Perhaps it's not a particular type of reasoning, but rather flexibility of thinking, that's required whenever science makes real progress in some area. Bertrand Russell once said that in order to really understand anything, one has to be able to "live with an unfinished world view." Most of us, most of the time, work very hard to maintain a stable set of beliefs about the various aspects of our world, beliefs that we take for granted as correct. Each individual does this, and groups of people work hard to coordinate their individual versions of what is going on. When something discrepant happens, we automatically create a new version of what happened and then forget that there ever was a discrepancy Groups can hold even more tenaciously to their cherished beliefs than do individuals, and a member trying to push forward a fundamental change in the group's world view is often met with more fear and hostility than would someone who tried to burn the building. It is quite wonderful when a person can, even for a short time, find a way to set aside this passion for certainty and make room to learn something new. That's only one side of the story, however: Intellectual humility is not something that all scientists have to attain. Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific disciplines go through long periods of "normal science" in which no changes in basic beliefs and assumptions are required. Those who do manage to leave their minds open for a while are not required to keep them open. Even someone who inspired the last revolution may be guarding the gates when it comes time for the next one. It has been suggested that scientific work is so difficult that one must believe that a theory is correct in order to muster courage and energy to explore the boundaries of the new territory it opens up to view. Eventually, though, there comes a time when at least someone must again be able to consider seriously the possibility that a generally accepted belief may need to be revised. In summary, what I suspect we're seeing, in the amazing flourishing of modern science, is the gradual accumulation of the effects of a host of improvements in methods of observation and measurement and manipulation of just about anything, along with advancements in math, all made available to ordinary people through improved methods of communication that transcend both distance and time. All of that, occurring in an emerging culture that is coming to respect, or at least tolerate, intellectual humility and independence of thought. There is no need to postulate an arcane new mode of thinking, a new form of knowledge, or a new breed of human beings to explain how science is able to provide constant improvements in our understanding of ourselves and our world.

West Island School – TOK – SJT

The Scientific Method – 1 - Development

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