Science and scientists have taken something of a battering in the US over the past several years, over the topic of climate change particularly, but also generally. It comes largely from people who really don’t understand what science is and is not. Maybe they have not really considered the sources of the many benefits of scientific endeavor that enrich their lives, but perceive it as a hostile force, attempting to disprove things they ardently believe, or contrariwise, prove things they ardently don’t want to accept as truth. They confuse common-use meanings for terms like ‘theory’ for how scientists define and use them. They confuse ‘science’ which is a method of discovery with ‘scientists’ who range along the same wide spectrum of competency, honesty, spirituality, etc, as every other human being.
Science is a process of seeking out fact and yet is always open to evolving and discovering new data, new revelations. Science is not the scientific disciplines that are founded on the information derived from the scientific process, but the process itself: scientific method.
Scientific method is a simple and elegant way of discovering facts about the physical world that allow us to create medicines that work, to engineer tools and machines that make our lives possible, to expand our understanding of the physical Universe.
It requires each element of fact used to back up any hypothesis to have been itself already proven to be fact. It may not use as evidence anything not so proven. This leads to the popular confusion that scientists don’t believe in anything they can’t prove. The truth is, the best scientists are profoundly aware that there is much in the Universe that science does not yet have the means to examine. Just because they haven’t got answers to all the questions doesn’t mean they dismiss the questions. There is always the element of the Unknown, the reliability of our ignorance that is the very driving force of science. So, many questions are quietly shelved until science find the tools to pursue answers.
Science has been cast in a negative light in recent years, by those who would like to believe they can have the benefits of understanding without the discipline of determining greater truths through a pathway of smaller facts established by the rigors of scientific method.
There is the demand, for instance, that faith-based concepts and explanations be accepted as the equivalent as those established by science, and be taught in schools as part of a science curriculum. But it’s apples and oranges: Evolution, climate change, geologic time–these are the fruits of scientific study; Bible-based accounts of Creation and the explanations for fossils, for instance, are matters of philosophy with its array of tools such as faith, imagination, emotion and psychology.
Intuition, logic, analysis, speculation–these are tools shared by both science and philosophy. They are the place where questions begin, and also the hypotheses that propose answers. But from that point, it’s basic scientific method to establish facts, to determine predictable relationships and dynamics.
Our world comes out of both science and philosophy: Out of science come solutions for problems in the physical world: engineering, medicine. From all the tools of the heart and subtle mind, and faith come art: music, literature, painting and sculpture. From philosophy we establish morals and ethics, codes of law and social behavior: All that civilization requires to exist.
Science tells us what things are, how they work; Philosophy pursues why. As ever, it is the balancing of the physical with the spiritual that gives meaning and understanding to existence, and makes it possible to grow and become more than we began. Out of balance, we stagnate as human beings, as societies and cultures.