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Scientific logic: An application to meteorological observations

Dave Dempsey, San Francisco State University
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Summary

This quiz (which can be recast easily as a homework or in-class exercise) presents students with a typical weather map showing surface weather-station data plots and contours of constant sea-level pressure (isobars). It then poses a series of statements about weather patterns that might or might not be accepted generally by meteorologists based on many years of observations. (These can be interpreted as "hypotheses" about weather patterns.) Finally, for each statement, it asks students to decide whether the observations on the weather map

  1. prove the statement;
  2. confirm or support the statement well;
  3. clearly contradict or disprove the statement; or
  4. don't provide enough evidence to say one way or another.

To address the question successfully, students must first be able to read the weather map, then apply scientific logic to evaluate each general statement about weather patterns based solely on the evidence on the map.

Learning Goals

Context for Use

This submission could be used in any introductory meteorology class at any level from high school to college. It is cast as a quiz question, but it could be easily converted into a homework problem, in-class exercise, or lab activity.

Students should have already learned about analyzing scalar fields using contour lines (in this case, isobars) and reading "weather-station models," the convention for coding and displaying weather observations at individual stations on a weather map. These are concepts typically covered in introductory meteorology classes.

The submission requires access to standard weather maps of the sort widely available on the Web.

Description and Teaching Materials

There's not much to this, assuming that students already know how to to read information on a basic weather map and understand already what the difference between proof, confirmation/support, and disconfirmation/disproof are in the context of scientific logic. Students are given the weather map, the instructions, and the list of candidate general statements about weather patterns, and they go to it!

(Methods of instruction about reading weather maps are available elsewhere. Discussion about scientific evidence, including the difference between "proof" and "confirmation", for example, must occur before students tackle this exercise, of course.)
Quiz Question on the Logic of Scientific Evidence Applied to a Weather Map (Microsoft Word 75kB Jun30 09)

Teaching Notes and Tips

To answer a question like this one, students need training and practice with both (1) reading a weather map; and (2) the logic of scientific evidence, including the idea that there is no real proof possible possible in science–for practical purposes there is always some uncertainty about the validity of scientific hypotheses, theories, laws, and other scientific statements. (Even disproof can be uncertain if it is based on observational evidence.)

Assessment

This submission actually is a quiz question, so it is itself an assessment, though with instructional materials (reading weather maps; the logic of scientific evidence) it can be used as a homework or in-class assignment or lab activity.

References and Resources

Any basic surface weather map could be used for this exercise. An example might be: http://virga.sfsu.edu/gif/sathts_snd_00.gif.

(There are many other, similar maps available. This one has an infrared satellite image superimposed on it as well as other data; simpler maps, without the satellite image, are widely available.)

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