Of Scientific Inquiry and the Practice of Science

Scientific inquiry is necessary because it enables us to acquire knowledge and understanding about nature. Through scientific inquiry, we are able to discern order and patterns of behavior in nature, and we are able to create a mental picture of the world. It can be said that among the goals of scientific inquiry is to help us uncover the truth about the physical world. But such a revelation of the "truth" about nature is not perfect, nor shall it ever be perfect. The mental pictures produced by science are what Robert Bernstein and Donald McEachron call in their book, The American Biology Teacher, as "contingent truths"-truths that are contingent upon our limited knowledge of ourselves and the world around us. Of course there is always room for improvement. The more we improve our inquiry, the better our mental models will correspond with the real world.

There are several philosophical assumptions that underlie all scientific inquiries. It is said that there is regularity in nature that is expressed by laws and that the human mind can "know" these laws. Moreover, in the process of scientific progress, there is said to be the existence of a scientific paradigm, to which scientists subscribe and is an empirical and philosophical interpretation of the physical world. As was aforementioned, we have limited knowledge and as such, the paradigms we make are also not wholly perfect, though they may have been conceptualized by the cleverest scientists in history. Thus, anomalies or observations and discoveries that do not fit into the paradigms, things that should work but do not, may appear. New paradigms that explain these anomalies may very well replace the old ones.

Now how do these philosophical beliefs relate to our personal experience of beauty and order in nature? It may well be because of the fact that nature, for all its complexities, could still be explained by laws, and so ironically be simplified, that we may find it even more beautiful. Through science we, find an inherent order in nature that we could not have otherwise discovered if we did not try to study it, if we did not try to discover the laws and theories that seek to illuminate it, if we had not come up with the paradigms which are our closest representations of the real world.

Many scientists aspire for elegance in their theories for they deem elegance to be almost a form of proof of the theories in itself. Elegance can also be a good indication that a scientist is in a sure line of progress because with elegance, a scientist gains sound insight about his work. And with sound insight comes the desire of the scientist to grasp the "thing" right, for he believes that there really is an answer to his inquiry.

Scientific inquiry also demands stern ethical implications. Firstly, I've said that among the goals of scientific inquiry is to reveal the truth (or what is closest to truth) about the real world. If dishonesty underlies an inquiry, then such an inquiry undermines the idea of truth from the very beginning. Thus, dishonest acts subvert the very nature of a scientific inquiry. Barbara Ehrenreich, in the article Science, Lies and the Ultimate Truth (Time Magazine), says that there is a little-known spiritual side to science; through research, we seek to know the ultimate Other...the nameless Subject of so much that happens. This is our quest for truth. Utmost honesty then is perhaps the basic moral code that every science researcher must abide by. Even so, it is understandable that scientists make mistakes once in a while. That is why it is constructive that scientific findings be put under review by other members of the scientific community. If a researcher reports exactly how he did his work, then the integrity of his research can be protected, even though he may have committed honest errors, because he followed proper scientific protocols. Furthermore, peer review is necessary to uncover works of fraud and intentional ambiguities in argument presented by some dishonest scientists.

Science as a systematic way of knowing things, and being about the physical world, is empirical. Consequently, the scientific method involving observation and experimentation should be used to validate statements of an inquiry. Scientific method, is the "formulation and reformulation of hypothesis" in the sense that one should always carefully test them as well as the assumptions on which they rest for it may turn out that they may be wrong. It is not done as a pre-organized ritual, as was our wont in our early school years; rather, it should be a blend of logical and empirical methods. The former is when a thinker makes deductions from facts and the latter is when the thinker constructs a world and checks how this world fits the facts.

In the course of a scientific inquiry, laws and theories may be conceived. Laws give precise expression to observed regularities that occur in nature. They are essential for describing, explaining or predicting natural phenomena. Theories explain the laws and through them, we can deduce laws, otherwise the theory would not be useful. A theoretical explanation, being a simple, testable, and correctable explanation of observable phenomena, is more satisfactory than laws which are unproven and also unprovable. Laws are assumed to be valid as long as no natural violations of them can be found. It is also presumed that laws exist and have always existed.

At the end of the day, we find ourselves asking more questions about, and seeking greater understanding about nature. Scientific inquiry would not give us absolute and perfect answers about nature but it is indeed the best tool at our disposal.


Post a Comment

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More

Powered by Blogger