Rules of the game of science
Carolyn Reeves
Carolyn Reeves
Retired science teacher and co-author of a series of elementary science textbooks (New Leaf Press).

November 2011 – This season’s political debates and commentaries have come out strong against people who are skeptical of evolution or climate change, painting them as being anti-science. In recent weeks, one MSNBC commentator asked, “How disturbed should we be that a presidential candidate is talking nonsense?” And a blogger asked, “Should the leader of the free world believe in fantasy over reality and proven facts?” These comments were made because Michele Bachmann expressed skepticism about Darwinian evolution and thought all the scientific evidence for the origin of life should be on the table for students to evaluate.

Rick Perry was widely accused of being anti-science for arguing that it would be nonsense to put America’s economy in jeopardy based on a climate change theory that’s not settled yet. A blogger writing for the Huffington Post accused the entire Republican party of becoming increasingly corrupted by a mixture of anti-science religious zealots and irrational anti-climate change contrarians.

Perhaps it’s time for people to understand that being skeptical of Darwinian evolution and catastrophic climate change predictions is not bad science; and that neither idea has been scientifically proven. Being a scientifically informed citizen has as much to do with understanding how science works as it does with having information about science. Many of the anti-science comments we are hearing are based on misconceptions about what science is and how it works. The surprising thing is that the basic “rules” of science are not complicated and can be mastered by anyone who is willing to spend the time to learn them.

Several years ago, there was a defining moment for me as a teacher when I realized how embedded misconceptions about the workings of science can become. During class, a young man asked, “Is this true?” as he pointed to a picture in his science textbook. The picture showed a group of dinosaurs standing among lush vegetation, while in the sky a huge ball of fire was heading toward the earth. The caption under the picture said a large meteorite crashed into the earth millions of years ago, eventually leading to the extinction of dinosaurs.

“This is what some scientists think happened, but there are also some other explanations for why dinosaurs became extinct,” I answered.

“But why would they put this in the book if it isn’t true?” he replied, clearly perplexed. The question got the attention of the entire class, and other students joined in. “Yeah, we learn facts in science.” and “They could get sued if they don’t tell the truth.”

I made several futile attempts to explain that scientific knowledge is tentative and scientists frequently consider more than one possible explanation for something that has happened.

“Listen class,” I finally said. “Science is not a collection of scientifically proven facts!”

I could tell from the looks on their faces, not one person in the room was buying this. Somewhere along the way they had come to mistakenly believe that everything in print about science was an established fact.

Misconceptions like this are often embedded in Christians of all ages. They not only cause confusion about a host of science-related issues, but they make it difficult to participate in and evaluate discussions on these topics. Being uninformed about the rules of science is much like an athlete playing in a sporting event and not understanding the rules of the game.

Here are some of the basic rules of the game of science everyone should know:

1. Rocket scientists are not the same as rocket engineers.
The roots of science extend back though history for thousands of years, mostly in the forms of mathematics, philosophy, natural collections, and technologies. However, during the past few hundred years, science emerged as a separate, new field with two main goals: providing explanations for things that have been observed in nature and discovering repeating patterns in nature. Technology, including engineering, became a different field whose primary goal was to produce useful things for society. For example, rocket scientists would be interested in explaining why rockets move as they do. Or, they might try to identify repeating predictable patterns about forces and motion. Although rocket engineers would be interested in the scientific principles of how a rocket works, their primary goals would be designing and building rockets that are safe, efficient and economical.

2. Historical sciences are where the rules are a little different.
Historical sciences try to reconstruct the natural history of the earth. Scientists like Darwin try to figure out what happened in the past, all the way back to a hypothetical first living cell. Most other fields of science are known as operational sciences, which focus on how things currently behave in nature.

Scientific studies are generally observable in some way, are limited to things that can be tested or falsified, will yield similar results if retested and can be used to make predictions about nature. Methods are used that help to eliminate the personal opinions of the researchers and the effects of factors not being tested. Operational science can easily be described by these characteristics, but there are problems applying them to historical sciences. No one can directly observe the past and past events cannot be tested except in limited ways.

Scientists working in the areas of operational sciences use only natural explanations to explain nature. However, some evolutionists claim that there are also natural explanations to fully explain how plants, animals and man came to exist. They may even go a step further and make a “rule” that all supernatural explanations (including God and Creation) are false or irrelevant.

When it comes to the scientific study of origins, the idea that all life evolved over millions of years by means of random chance and natural processes should not be the only logical choice students are given. There is no valid reason for eliminating the possibility that God created all life.

3. Explanations, theories and facts are not the same.
Facts are things that have been observed or measured in some way and are always the starting point for scientific research. Scientific research is about finding and testing logical explanations for a set of facts.

Some explanations are based on strong evidence and have a high level of certainty. Some explanations have a low level of certainty. When the evidence that supports a scientific explanation is verified by a variety of researchers and can be applied to many areas of science, it may become a scientific theory. A scientific theory is a strong term and is not the same as a hunch. However, neither explanations (strong or weak) nor theories turn into facts.

4. Facts may be explained in more than one way.
A set of facts can be explained in more than one way. You can think of this as being similar to serving on a jury. A lot of facts are introduced to the jury during the trial. Both the prosecutor and the defense use the same set of facts, but they have different explanations of what happened. Scientists, like members of a jury, have to carefully examine all the evidence and then decide which explanation best fits the facts.

5. Scientific laws and scientific theories are not the same.
Scientific laws, such as Newton’s three laws of motion, describe repeating patterns in nature that have been observed over and over again without exceptions. However, none of these laws contain an explanation for what causes things to move as they do. They only describe certain forces and motions. A scientific theory does not ever become a scientific law because theories and laws are not the same thing.

6. Skepticism and critical analysis are two very good things.
Being skeptical about scientific explanations is a good trait for scientific-minded people to have. Normal science involves critical analysis of the research of other scientists, and this is one of the most important processes of science. If you understand the importance of allowing a jury to hear both the defense and the prosecution, you will understand the importance of debating ideas in science. That is why many people are puzzled as to why skepticism and critical analysis of Darwinian evolution and catastrophic climate change predictions are often discouraged, especially in schools.

7. Multiple definitions of evolution are not a good thing.
The term evolution can refer to changes over time, which are observable and can be considered a fact. Evolution can also refer to a hypothetical, speculative process by which all living things on earth evolved from a single-celled organism over millions of years. This ambiguity creates unnecessary confusion.

Teaching science without violating the rules
Major science organizations stress the importance of helping students understand how science works. Yet there are still influential scholars who routinely violate the fundamental rules of science. We see them not allowing scientific challenges to controversial issues, such as catastrophic climate change predictions or Darwinian evolution; they label supernatural explanations about the origin of mankind, the earth and the universe false or irrelevant; or they refer to hypotheses or theories as facts.

Some states have found that allowing scientific evidence both for and against Darwin’s theory of evolution is a good teaching policy. (See AFA Journal, 2/10.) This method doesn’t violate the rules of science and it leaves room for a supernatural creation. It also has the approval of 78% of Americans, according to a 2009 Zogby poll (  undefined

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