Scientific Certainty; What’s in a Theory?

Picking out the greatest disservice we do to out students as science-teachers is no easy task; there is quite an impressive list to pick from. Not reflecting or even being aware of this is in itself significant. I think C.S. Pierce put it best when he wrote “Find a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics [philosophy] . . . and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticised metaphyiscs with which they are packed.”

This year marks the 200th birthday of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th birthday of the publication of his famous book On the Origin of Species, so it seems like a good opportunity to address at least one of these issues here, namely the concept of absolute certainty in Science.

Science does not offer absolute proof; it never has and it never will. Science (and scientists, and science teachers) are their own worst enemy here, because for hundreds of years we have been (tacitly or otherwise) giving the impression that Science does offer – and can find – certainty.

A second related contributory factor is the word ‘Theory’. It has two completely different meanings, depending on whether it is being used in a scientific context or in general parlance. So where, in a student’s school science education, do we as teachers address this?
There’s a nice example of this in Richard Dawkins The Root of all Evil; See this in action at 8 minutes 30 seconds into the clip below.

 

 

The key here is at the very end.
Interviewee: You say “this is truth, because it’s based on evidence. That’s such a fuddy answer.”
Dawkins: We don’t say that, we say “we’re struggling towards the truth, and as new evidence comes in we refine it”.
Can’t recall ever saying that in my lessons, or indeed ever having heard it from a science teacher either.
Maybe the problem lies with us.

How many of us for that matter would be able to distinguish between the following:
Law
Principle
Dogma
Theory
Axiom
Hypothesis
Equation
Doctrine
Effect
Conjecture
(and for two marks can you put a scientist’s name to each one?)

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