Nature of Science

Nov. 4, 2016

Science is simultaneously reliable and open to revision. This sounds counter-intuitive, but the NSTA explains this well: The cycle of induction and deduction, a hallmark of logic, is far from perfect. There is simply no way to know that one has amassed all of the relevant data nor is there any way to be sure that the generalization suggested will hold true for all space and time. However, the logical knowledge generation process described briefly here is the best we have yet developed to provide ideas that are both useful and valid despite an inability to offer absolute proof. We can have confidence that scientific conclusions formed in this fashion will be long lasting or durable because of the rigorous, self-correcting nature of the scientific process and the requirement that conclusions are agreed to by consensus of the scientific community.

Theories are highly supported inferential explanations of the natural world that are internally consistent and compatible with best evidence. Theories are not simple notions in the way the word is commonly misused such as: “I have a theory about how to win the lottery.” Until one collects data over time and develops a system that can be replicated, that statement is actually a hypothesis.

There are many unifying theories in different areas of science. For example, the Atomic Theory of Matter is the unifying theory of chemistry. We have never directly seen an atom, but we infer their existence and properties by how matter interacts.  The Theory of Plate Tectonics is the unifying theory of geology and explains how mountains, volcanoes, fault lines and rift valleys form. The theory is consistent and is supported by direct and inferential evidence. The Theory of Evolution is the unifying theory of biology. Darwin put the theory forth before genetics gained prominence, but the discoveries of genetics were consistent with the theory along with taxonomy and embryology. 

When it comes to Greenhouse Effect, evidence supports that some gases in our atmosphere, carbon dioxide, methane and others, trap heat energy. We also know that human activities add a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, around 27 billion tons per year. There is a majority scientific consensus that the rapid release of carbon from burning fossil fuels, that would normally be sequestered in our crust for millions of years, is a problem for the life sustaining natural systems of the planet.

Why does there seem to be uncertainty about climate change? Money and politics. There is a history of using the uncertainty in science to influence politicians and public opinion. Fuel and automobile interests kept lead in our gasoline for decades, even after scientific data showed that lead in our gas was a problem for the atmosphere and people. The tobacco industry put off regulations for over a decade using the uncertainty of science. When it comes to climate change, the petrol-chemical industry and coal companies have been subverting the science for over a decade. When it comes to sustainable energy, utility companies are using political means to keep solar roof panels financially untenable by increasing fees for homeowners who want to install them. These companies do not want to give up their profits and have the financial means to influence politicians and public opinion to go against their best interest, the interests of our country and the interests of future generations. Because of the lack of ecological literacy among our citizenship and the fact that humans seem to resist long-term thinking, people are more concerned about money and comfortable lifestyles in the present rather than the life sustaining systems and cycles of the planet of the future.  

Here are a few scientific organizations that have expressed concerns regarding climate change:

American Association for the Advancement of Science

American Chemical Society

American Geophysical Union

American Medical Association

American Meteorological Society

American Physical Society

NASA

NOEA

The Geological Society of America

U.S. National Academy of Sciences

U.S. Global Change Research Program