The Processes of Science


Further updating this particular post, I want to note something written on Theolog by Jonathan Marlowe entitled “Binocular Vision”.  Marlowe is writing about John Polkinghorne and his career in physics and religion (a tip of the hat to Dogwood Dave for noting this piece).  It is embarrassing to note that I have one of Polkinghorne’s books (Belief In God in an Age of Science) close by my desk.

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As an update to this post (first published on 20 February 2008), quoting the The New York Times,

The $1.6 million Templeton Prize, the richest award made to an individual by a philanthropic organization, was given Wednesday to Michael Heller, 72, a Roman Catholic priest, cosmologist and philosopher who has spent his life asking, and perhaps more impressively answering, questions like “Does the universe need to have a cause?”

Additional information can be found at “The Templeton Prize – Current prize winner”.

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Those who have read my blogs know that I hold a Ph. D. in Science Education and am a Certified Lay Speaker in the United Methodist Church.  For some, this would imply a contradiction in what I believe. There are some who would say that if I believe in science, then I cannot believe in God. And there are those who would have a hard time accepting the notion that I can believe in God and, at the same time, be a scientist. The difficulty is, of course, being able to understand what each area does.

But one can be a scientist and religious without contradicting either area or having conflicts with either area.

I count as a friend a Catholic priest who is also an organic chemist. I am reminded of Gregor Mendel, the Austrian priest, whose work with peas generated the beginnings of our understanding of genetics. And there is the Georges Lemaitre.

You may not have heard of this gentleman but he is both a mathematician and a Catholic priest. In 1931, Lemaitre proposed that the universe had a definite beginning in which all matter and energy were concentrated at one point. This simple statement is the proposal of what we have come to know as the “Big Bang”.

For me, being a Christian is the acceptance of Jesus Christ as my Savior. This is a statement of faith. There are no known experiments which can prove this statement. There need be no experiments that we should look at. 

But experiments can and do tell us a lot about the world around us and the universe in which we live.

The problem is that many people do not understand what an experiment is and what the processes of science are.

Now, let me start off by saying that there no such thing as the “scientific method”. I have observed too many teachers try to teach the “scientific method” when in reality they are teaching the process of problem solving.

If you feel that you have to have a method, then try to make sure that it goes something like this:

  1. Determine the question you wish to answer
  2. Create a reasonable answer to your question – this is your hypothesis.
  3. Think about how you will find the answer to your question.
  4. Collect the data
  5. Analyze the data
  6. Interpret the data
  7. Prepare a report.

The question you wish to answer can be almost anything you want, provided that it is reasonable and there is logical answer possible. One student I had the pleasure of working with asked why no grass grew around certain weeds in her backyard. Her hypothesis was that the weed exuded some sort of substance which killed the grass.

Here you have an example of a question with a logical answer. On the other hand, you can ask a question for which there is no possible logical answer. When I was in the 9th grade in 1965, I conjured up the question “what is the earth’s gravitational effect on itself?” Clearly, this is not a logical question to ask. After refinement, we asked the question, “What is the effect of the earth’s gravitational field on a spacecraft on a journey from the earth to the moon?”

This was further refined into “If an Apollo spacecraft halfway to the moon were to suddenly loses its velocity where would it fall?” A second question would be “How far from the moon would the spacecraft have to be before it could not return to earth?”

Now, my questions were easily answerable using Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation. And I was able to determine that the earth’s gravitational field would have an influence on the Apollo spacecraft through 90% of the journey. Only when the spacecraft was less than 3.9 x 104 kilometers (39000 km) from the moon or 3.5 x 109 km from earth before the moon’s gravitational field would have an effect on the spacecraft. {And if this problem sounds vaguely familiar, in 1970 the Apollo 13 spacecraft suffered a catastrophic power failure approximately 3.2 x 105 km from earth.)

The other experiment that I mentioned involved the elucidation of compounds, besides chlorophyll, that were present in the weed. For her work, the student ultimately received a full scholarship to a major university where she began working with a professor who had been studying the same phenomena for a number of years. I got a good grade in my 9th grade science class.

So you start with a question and a hypothesis. Then you seek a means of answering the question and proving or disproving the hypothesis. (For those who have taken statistics course, we could discuss the ubiquitous “null hypothesis” but we will save that for a later time and place.)

When you collect the data that will enable you to answer your question, you are seeking the facts. Facts are those items that are observable through one or more of your senses.

A conclusion is the interpretation or meaning you give for the facts that you have gathered. And a key point here is that you cannot change the facts to fit a pre-determined outcome. If the facts do not match the desired outcome, the desire outcome must change.

After one has done a number of experiments in a given area, it is possible to generate a theory. A theory is a broader conclusion.

Here is where people make errors. Theories are not facts; they are not meant to be facts. Theories are the best explanation for what has been observed and offer the best explanation for what might happen next.

Consider the development of the heliocentric (or sun-centered) model of the solar system. When man first began looking at the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets, it seemed logical that all heavenly bodies moved and the earth stayed still. But as data was gathered on the movement of the various bodies, errors began to creep in. One of the most glaring errors was the retrograde motion of Mars.

Retrograde motion means that Mars was moving backward rather forward through the sky.

Now, it was and is possible to create a model of the solar system that accounts for the various observations, including the retrograde motion of Mars. But it is a very complicated model. The process of science is best served by simple models and simple models often require extensive amounts of data.

Or they require looking at things with a different viewpoint. When Galileo observed the moons of Jupiter orbiting the planet of Jupiter, he was able to understand what Kepler and Copernicus were thinking as they sought to correct the model of the universe. Of course, Galileo’s explanation ran counter to the Catholic Church’s view of the universe and you know that story.

When Darwin went to the Galapagos Islands, he observed the differences between the various birds and other animals living on each island. It was based on those observations that he began developing the theory of evolution. The theory itself is not immediately obvious; it only comes after serious consideration of what has been observed.

Theories can be tested; in fact, they demand testing. If a theory cannot hold up to the test, it is not a very good theory. The first atomic theory was that the atom was indivisible; the discovery of the electron and proton effectively destroyed that theory. The concept of the atom was further refined by the discovery of the nucleus. For many years, it was assumed that the electron, proton, and neutron were indivisible but research has shown that these sub-atomic particles can be divided into even smaller particles. At some point, there must be a limit to the sub-division of particles but it is still some time in the future before that point will be reached.

The one thing that we must avoid is thinking that a theory is a fact. It is not a fact; repeat, it is not a fact. If a theory is taught as such, it is being taught wrong. But that doesn’t mean that other theories are correct. A theory can be replaced when it is proven false but it must be proven false by the same methods that generated the first theory.

When you invoke processes outside the realm of science as part of the means for validating a theory, then you have invalidated the process. And false methods cannot generate true answers.

What does this all mean? First, Darwin’s theory of evolution is the best explanation for the development of life on this planet. It is based on observations and conjectures. It does not require the imposition of any supernatural being nor does it require that we declare that one part of the process is too complex for the human mind to comprehend.

If someone is teaching Darwin’s theory as fact, then they are teaching it wrong. But that doesn’t mean that other theories should necessarily be taught.

This is going to be hard for many people to accept. They want to accept the idea that God created Heaven and earth but they somehow think that science is telling them that they can’t do so. But nowhere in the process of figuring out how things develop or work has science ever told us why things were developed or how things work the way they do.

Faith is needed in order to understand why things happen. That is why it is possible to be a scientist and have faith. They too work together, not in opposition.

Mankind was created in God’s image. If we were not meant to seek God, we would not have been given the ability to think and seek. Instead of not thinking and not seeking as a means of better understanding the world around us, wouldn’t it be better if we were to think and see?

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8 thoughts on “The Processes of Science

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