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The Foundations of Science

By Bill Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #76, 2007.

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Bill Pride


Science is one of the subjects we are required to teach our children from preschool to grade 12. American schools have been struggling to teach science effectively. In international science competitions America falls embarrassingly short. The reason why may become evident as you read this article.

To teach science effectively we need to understand what science really is... and what it is not. It is NOT just a collection of facts. Looking online, nobody defines science even remotely the same, but here is a good working definition from dictionary.reference.com:

Sci-ence [sahy - uh ns]:
-noun

  1. A branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.

  2. Systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.

Some people treat science like their religion, with scientists as priests whose every pronouncement must be believed as if it came from an oracle. Actually scientists are like the early explorers sailing off into the unknown and discovering new lands. The scientist observes something new and formulates a theory based on his discovery. Right or wrong, the scientist lays claim to his new theory and a battle ensues while he defends it against current scientific thought.

Sometimes, like Christopher Columbus mistaking the Caribbean islands for India, scientists make mistaken assumptions about their data. For example: scientists believed that there was a massless substance called phlogiston contained in every flammable substance that was given off when it burned. That theory explained many observations and was staunchly defended by its adherents. It was eventually abandoned with the discovery of oxygen and the chemical process of combustion.

Many of the current accepted theories of science are even now being hotly debated by contemporary scientists. Others will may be called into question in the future. Some of them will be abandoned like phlogiston. Science is a process of discovery and what is now touted as absolutely true may someday be patronized as the ignorant beliefs of a primitive age.

Throughout the process of development of modern scientific theory, there are things that have never changed. These are the foundational things that make science "systematic knowledge" as opposed to jumbled suppositions: mathematics, logic, and observation.

Mathematics

The first foundation of science is mathematics-the language of science.

You can't quantify anything without math. You can't count it, measure it, graph it, or calculate it. This is why mathematics is stressed on all the high-stakes standardized tests. SAT, ACT, PSAT, GRE, and MCAT all have math sections. Whether you are getting into college, competing for scholarships, or getting into graduate school or medical school, you have to demonstrate proficiency in mathematics.

You can't define scientific laws without the language of mathematics. For example, Einstein discovered that mass and energy were related by the formula E = mc2. Without math, all you can say is that energy and matter seem to be related to one another.

Without mathematics exact science can't exist.

Logic

The second foundation of science is logic. You can't talk about "facts" or "truths" without entering the realm of logic.

For something to be true, its opposite has to be false. Something I am observing can't be red and not red at the same time. Something can't be 25°C and 100°C at the same time. In order to have science, you have to assume logic.

Further, in order for science to accurately describe the universe, you have to assume a consistent universe. The laws that rule the universe today have to continue to rule the universe tomorrow or the scientific facts you observe today will be different tomorrow. Science can't exist in an unpredictable universe.

You also have to assume that the relationships between things in your universe are simple enough so that you can derive equations that accurately describe those relationships. If instead of F = ma, the equation had been F = m(3a2 + 1.37a + 2.3), physics would still be in the Middle Ages.

Our universe was created so that related quantities are almost always proportional to each other (x/y is a constant) or inversely proportional to each other (x*y is a constant). Gravity, magnetism, and electrostatic forces between two objects all decrease with the square of the distance between the objects. Many of these relationships are simple enough that they can be derived from experiments that can be performed in a high-school science lab.

We take our simple logical universe for granted whenever we pursue scientific truth. This is the logical thing to do if the universe is the creation of a logical person. There is no reason why a universe that originated from a random explosion should have any kind of consistent physical laws.

Moral relativism-the belief that "what's true for me may not be true for you"-is rapidly eroding logic and reason in our society. Teaching methods that stress the process of solving a problem at the expense of finding the right answer are the very opposite of the quest for truth that underlies science.

Observation

The third foundation of science is observation, the ability to perceive the universe through our senses aided by instruments as needed. Also required is the faith that what we perceive has objective reality, i.e., that you will observe the same thing I do if you view it from the same vantage point. What's true for me is true for you.

Observations are of two kinds: categorical and quantitative. Categorical observations help us sort things out. Some things are red, some are green. Some are hard, some are soft. Some are rough, some are smooth. And so forth.

"Quantitative observation" is another name for "measurement." Using some device, we find out how big something is. How long is it? How much does it weigh? How much volume does it fill up? What's its temperature? If something is moving, how long does it take to go from here to there?

Observation supplies the facts that science interprets to form theories. Without observation you can have philosophy, but not science-you have Aristotle, but not Galileo.

This is where science study starts-with preschool nature walks and bug hunts, proceeding on to high-school science lab with its triple beam balance and graduated cylinders.

Will modern science stagnate into a rigid orthodoxy as has happened so many times in the past? If we as homeschoolers want to make a difference in the scientific community, we need to train a generation of scientists equipped to challenge the status quo. We need to give our children a good foundation, then let them loose to see what they build on it.


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