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The Scientific Method

The Scientific Method makes an excellent introduction to an introductory science class, in part because it defines the nature of science, emphasizing the contrast between science and other forms of understanding. The following is an example of a lecture appropriate to the first day of class.

Uses of Doubt and Faith

In any of the various formulations of the Scientific Method:

Ask the students to pair up again and work out what kinds of evidence can be gathered using tests or experiments. Collect and discuss the findings. Emphasize in this discussion that it must be physical and it must be accessible to other investigators. Private revelations and intuitions can not be used as scientific evidence.

Eocene whale skeleton with hind feet
Research on the Origin and Early Evolution of Whales (Cetacea) - http://www-personal.umich.edu/~gingeric/PDGwhales/Whales.htm (more info)

Ask the student pairs to list different kinds of knowledge one can gain without physical, widely-available/reproducable evidence. The ensuing discussion leads the class from science to art, religion, and philosophy.

Religious beliefs about the world are not technically science because they are based in faith instead of in skepticism, and thus do not make extensive use of the Scientific Method (i.e. Nickels et al., 1996 ).

Seeking Causes and Reasons

Other differences between science and religion, or for that matter, science and literary criticism, also relate to the philosophy behind the scientific method. It's worth having students think about these as well.

The Scientific Method is an extremely powerful and specialized tool, but it not useful only for questions that deal with phenomena or features that can be observed and measured. It is not useful for abstracts, ideas, or other unmeasureables such as:

At this point, you can have the students once more turn to their neighbor and come up with questions: one that can be answered by science and one that cannot. Call on a number of pairs and have them report questions from each category.

A well-rounded education seeks to equip people with a variety of perspectives to help them get through life.

Science, religion, aesthetics, and other tools are used to answer different kinds of questions. Science refers to facts (although scientists differentiate between observations, data, statistics, conclusions, and many other kinds of facts) and seek proximate (immediate) causes, religion is about faith and the pursuit of values and of ultimate causes, or reasons.

You can conclude the session by stating that your science class deals with scientific reasoning and the kind of knowledge it gives us. Students are free to believe what they will, but for the purpose of reports, papers, and tests, they need to be able to discuss scientific methods and findings.


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