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What is Science?

Illustration of a compound microscope from Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary, 1876

Science is a process for learning about the natural world, and also the knowledge generated through this process.

Many students have the impression that science is simply a list of facts to be memorized, probably because their classroom experience involves memorizing lists of facts from textbooks. This is an unfortunate misunderstanding. The methodology of science is just as important as the specific knowledge science reveals. As Carl Sagan observed,

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.

The process of science is creative and flexible. There is no single scientific method used by all scientists. Rather, scientists use a variety of tools and techniques to test their hypotheses about the natural world. In disciplines such as chemistry, experiments can be directly performed in laboratories, with control samples and repetition. In disciplines using the methods of historical science, such as paleontology, scientists act more like forensic detectives, logically examining clues left behind at fossilized death scenes. In other disciplines, such as astronomy, experiments conducted on earth can help astronomers to understand processes faintly observed in distant stars.

All scientific conclusions are tentative—they will be changed if new evidence contradicts previous understandings. As Donald Prothero has written,

Science is not about finding final truth, only about testing and refining better and better hypotheses so these hypotheses approach what we think is true about the world.

The National Center for Science Education encourages all people to learn more about the nature of science. Below we have provided links to material for further reading, as well as answers to common questions.

Resources:

  1. Understanding Science
    An excellent website explaining the nature of science.
  2. Robert Pennock and Michael Ruse (eds.), 2009. But Is It Science?: The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy, Updated Edition. Prometheus Books
    Buy on Amazon.com
  3. National Academy of Sciences, 2008. Science, Evolution, and Creationism. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C. Available as a free pdf at www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11876.
  4. Donald Prothero, 2007. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters. Columbia University Press.
    Buy on Amazon.com
  5. Carl Sagan, 1997. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Ballantine Books.
    Buy on Amazon.com