TWENTY SCIENCE ATTITUDES
From the Rational Enquirer,
Vol 3, No. 3, Jan 90.
- Empiricism. Simply said, a scientist prefers
to "look and see." You do not argue about whether it is raining
outside--just stick a hand out the window. Underlying this is the belief
that there is one real world following constant rules in nature, and
that we can probe that real world and build our understanding--it will
not change on us. Nor does the real world depend upon our
understanding--we do not "vote" on science.
- Determinism. "Cause-and-effect" underlie
everything. In simple mechanisms, an action causes a reaction, and
effects do not occur without causes. This does not mean that some
processes are not random or chaotic. But a causative agent does not
alone produce one effect today and another tomorrow.
- A belief that problems have solutions. Major
problems have been tackled in the past, from the Manhattan Project to
sending a man to the moon. Other problems such as pollution, war,
poverty, and ignorance are seen as having real causes and are therefore
solvable--perhaps not easily, but possible.
- Parsimony. Prefer the simple explanation to the
complex: when both the complex earth-centered system with epicycles and
the simple Copernican sun-centered system explain apparent planetary
motion, we choose the simpler.
- Scientific manipulation. Any idea, even though it
may be simple and conform to apparent observations, must usually be
confirmed by work that teases out the possibility that the effects are
caused by other factors.
- Skepticism. Nearly all statements make
assumptions of prior conditions. A scientist often reaches a dead end in
research and has to go back and determine if all the assumptions made
are true to how the world operates.
- Precision. Scientists are impatient with vague
statements: A virus causes disease? How many viruses are needed to
infect? Are any hosts immune to the virus? Scientists are very exact and
- Respect for paradigms. A paradigm is our overall
understanding about how the world works. Does a concept "fit" with our
overall understanding or does it fail to weave in with our broad
knowledge of the world? If it doesn't fit, it is "bothersome" and the
scientist goes to work to find out if the new concept is flawed or if
the paradigm must be altered.
- A respect for power of theoretical structure.
Diederich describes how a scientist is unlikely to adopt the attitude:
"That is all right in theory but it won't work in practice." He notes
that theory is "all right" only if it does work in practice. Indeed the
rightness of the theory is in the end what the scientist is working
toward; no science facts are accumulated at random. (This is an
understanding that many science fair students must learn!)
- Willingness to change opinion. When Harold Urey,
author of one textbook theory on the origin of the moon's surface,
examined the moon rocks brought back from the Apollo mission, he
immediately recognized this theory did not fit the hard facts laying
before him. "I've been wrong!" he proclaimed without any thought of
defending the theory he had supported for decades.
- Loyalty to reality. Dr. Urey above did not
convert to just any new idea, but accepted a model that matched reality
better. He would never have considered holding to an opinion just
because it was associated with his name.
- Aversion to superstition and an automatic preference for
scientific explanation. No scientist can know all of the
experimental evidence underlying current science concepts and therefore
must adopt some views without understanding their basis. A scientist
rejects superstition and prefers science paradigms out of an
appreciation for the power of reality based knowledge.
- A thirst for knowledge, an "intellectual drive."
Scientists are addicted puzzle-solvers. The little piece of the puzzle
that doesn't fit is the most interesting. However, as Diederich notes,
scientists are willing to live with incompleteness rather than "...fill
the gaps with off-hand explanations."
- Suspended judgment. Again Diederich describes: "A
scientist tries hard not to form an opinion on a given issue until he
has investigated it, because it is so hard to give up opinion already
formed, and they tend to make us find facts that support the opinions...
There must be however, a willingness to act on the best hypothesis that
one has time or opportunity to form."
- Awareness of assumptions. Diederich describes how
a good scientist starts by defining terms, making all assumptions very
clear, and reducing necessary assumptions to the smallest number
possible. Often we want scientists to make broad statements about a
complex world. But usually scientists are very specific about what they
"know" or will say with certainty: "When these conditions hold true, the
usual outcome is such-and-such."
- Ability to separate fundamental concepts from the
irrelevant or unimportant. Some young science students get
bogged down in observations and data that are of little importance to
the concept they want to investigate.
- Respect for quantification and appreciation of mathematics
as a language of science. Many of nature's relationships are
best revealed by patterns and mathematical relationships when reality is
counted or measured; and this beauty often remains hidden without this
- An appreciation of probability and statistics.
Correlations do not prove cause-and-effect, but some pseudoscience
arises when a chance occurrence is taken as "proof." Individuals who
insist on an all-or-none world and who have little experience with
statistics will have difficulty understanding the concept of an event
occurring by chance.
- An understanding that all knowledge has tolerance limits.
All careful analyses of the world reveal values that scatter at least
slightly around the average point; a human's core body temperature is
about so many degrees and objects fall with a certain rate of
acceleration, but there is some variation. There is no absolute
- Empathy for the human condition. Contrary to
popular belief, there is a value system in science, and it is based on
humans being the only organisms that can "imagine" things that are not
triggered by stimuli present at the immediate time in their environment;
we are, therefore, the only creatures to "look" back on our past and
plan our future. This is why when you read a moving book, you imagine
yourself in the position of another person and you think "I know what
the author meant and feels." Practices that ignore this empathy and
resultant value for human life produce inaccurate science. (See
Bronowski for more examples of this controversial "scientific
Modified from Bronowski (1978), Diederich (1967) and Whaley &
Surratt (1967). Taken from The Kansas School Naturalist,
Vol. 35, No. 4, April 1989. Issues are availabile free of charge by
The Kansas School Naturalist
Division of Biological
Emporia State University
Emporia, Kansas, 66801-5087.
Home pages: Wimsey.