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Twenty Science Attitudes

     From the Rational Enquirer, Vol 3, No. 3, Jan 90.
1. Empiricism. Simply said, a scientist prefers to "look and see."
   You do not argue about whether it is raining outside--just stick a
   hand out the window. Underlying this is the belief that there is
   one real world following constant rules in nature, and that we can
   probe that real world and build our understanding--it will not
   change on us. Nor does the real world depend upon our
   understanding--we do not "vote" on science.

2. Determinism. "Cause-and-effect" underlie everything. In simple
   mechanisms, an action causes a reaction, and effects do not occur
   without causes. This does not mean that some processes are not
   random or chaotic. But a causative agent does not alone produce
   one effect today and another tomorrow.

3. A belief that problems have solutions. Major problems have been
   tackled in the past, from the Manhattan Project to sending a man
   to the moon. Other problems such as pollution, war, poverty, and
   ignorance are seen as having real causes and are therefore
   solvable--perhaps not easily, but possible.

4. Parsimony. Prefer the simple explanation to the complex: when both
   the complex earth-centered system with epicycles and the simple
   Copernican sun-centered system explain apparent planetary motion,
   we choose the simpler.

5. Scientific manipulation. Any idea, even though it may be simple
   and conform to apparent observations, must usually be confirmed by
   work that teases out the possibility that the effects are caused
   by other factors.

6. Skepticism. Nearly all statements make assumptions of prior
   conditions. A scientist often reaches a dead end in research and
   has to go back and determine if all the assumptions made are true
   to how the world operates.

7. Precision. Scientists are impatient with vague statements: A virus
   causes disease? How many viruses are needed to infect? Are any
   hosts immune to the virus? Scientists are very exact and very
   "picky".

8. Respect for paradigms. A paradigm is our overall understanding
   about how the world works. Does a concept "fit" with our overall
   understanding or does it fail to weave in with our broad knowledge
   of the world? If it doesn't fit, it is "bothersome" and the
   scientist goes to work to find out if the new concept is flawed or
   if the paradigm must be altered.

9. A respect for power of theoretical structure. Diederich describes
   how a scientist is unlikely to adopt the attitude: "That is all
   right in theory but it won't work in practice." He notes that
   theory is "all right" only if it does work in practice. Indeed the
   rightness of the theory is in the end what the scientist is
   working toward; no science facts are accumulated at random. (This
   is an understanding that many science fair students must learn!)

10. Willingness to change opinion. When Harold Urey, author of one
    textbook theory on the origin of the moon's surface, examined the
    moon rocks brought back from the Apollo mission, he immediately
    recognized this theory did not fit the hard facts laying before
    him. "I've been wrong!" he proclaimed without any thought of
    defending the theory he had supported for decades.

11. Loyalty to reality. Dr. Urey above did not convert to just any new
    idea, but accepted a model that matched reality better. He would
    never have considered holding to an opinion just because it was
    associated with his name.

12. Aversion to superstition and an automatic preference for scientific 
    explanation. No scientist can know all of the experimental evidence 
    underlying current science concepts and therefore must adopt some 
    views without understanding their basis.  A scientist rejects 
    superstition and prefers science paradigms out of an appreciation for 
    the power of reality based knowledge.

13. A thirst for knowledge, an "intellectual drive." Scientists are
    addicted puzzle-solvers. The little piece of the puzzle that
    doesn't fit is the most interesting. However, as Diederich notes,
    scientists are willing to live with incompleteness rather than
    "...fill the gaps with off-hand explanations."

14. Suspended judgment. Again Diederich describes: "A scientist tries
    hard not to form an opinion on a given issue until he has
    investigated it, because it is so hard to give up opinion already
    formed, and they tend to make us find facts that support the
    opinions... There must be however, a willingness to act on the
    best hypothesis that one has time or opportunity to form."

15. Awareness of assumptions. Diederich describes how a good scientist
    starts by defining terms, making all assumptions very clear, and
    reducing necessary assumptions to the smallest number possible.
    Often we want scientists to make broad statements about a complex
    world. But usually scientists are very specific about what they
    "know" or will say with certainty: "When these conditions hold
    true, the usual outcome is such-and-such."

16. Ability to separate fundamental concepts from the irrelevant or
    unimportant. Some young science students get bogged down in
    observations and data that are of little importance to the concept
    they want to investigate.

17. Respect for quantification and appreciation of mathematics as a
    language of science. Many of nature's relationships are best
    revealed by patterns and mathematical relationships when reality
    is counted or measured; and this beauty often remains hidden
    without this tool.

18. An appreciation of probability and statistics. Correlations do not
    prove cause-and-effect, but some pseudoscience arises when a
    chance occurrence is taken as "proof." Individuals who insist on
    an all-or-none world and who have little experience with
    statistics will have difficulty understanding the concept of an
    event occurring by chance.

19. An understanding that all knowledge has tolerance limits. All
    careful analyses of the world reveal values that scatter at least
    slightly around the average point; a human's core body temperature
    is about so many degrees and objects fall with a certain rate of
    acceleration, but there is some variation. There is no absolute
    certainty.

20. Empathy for the human condition. Contrary to popular belief, there
    is a value system in science, and it is based on humans being the
    only organisms that can "imagine" things that are not triggered by
    stimuli present at the immediate time in their environment; we
    are, therefore, the only creatures to "look" back on our past and
    plan our future. This is why when you read a moving book, you
    imagine yourself in the position of another person and you think
    "I know what the author meant and feels." Practices that ignore
    this empathy and resultant value for human life produce inaccurate
    science. (See Bronowski for more examples of this controversial
    "scientific attitude.")
       
Modified from Bronowski (1978), Diederich (1967) and Whaley & Surratt
(1967). Taken from The Kansas School Naturalist, Vol. 35, No. 4, April
1989. Issues are availabile free of charge by writing to:
The Kansas School Naturalist
Division of Biological Sciences
Emporia State University
Emporia, Kansas, 66801-5087.

Home pages: BC Skeptics
ted@psg.com

 





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