Monday, February 4, 2008

My theory of science

So, maybe you’ve been reading my blog and thinking to yourself, “But I can’t be a scientist. I don’t agree with half the things I’ve read about science.”

Let’s dispel one myth right now. Science is not a list of hard facts set in stone. Some people try to teach it that way, but it’s not reality. Science is a dynamic series of ever-evolving beliefs about the world and how it functions.

Take something controversial, like the theory of evolution. (For the record, I happen to believe that God created the world and it evolved, a personal theory that sets me at odds with a great number of people). You don’t have to believe in a theory in order to study it. In fact, we need people to challenge theories in order to build upon and improve the science behind them.

A theory simply reflects our best collective understanding of the world around us. Many scientific theories are replaced over time, as new facts are discovered and change our perception of the world that we live in. As the late Dr. Walter Johnson (a wonderfully eccentric and enthusiastic economics professor who taught both my husband and me) used to say, “What we have here is a beautiful theory that’s been set upon by a nasty gang of facts.”

For example, when I was in graduate school, I studied the origins of the moon. Earlier in school, I had been taught that the Pacific Ocean was deep and bowl-shaped because that’s where the moon used to be before it broke away from the Earth. (In fact, I later found this exact theory still presented in my graduate school soils textbook). But when I brought this up with my biogeochemistry professor, he looked at me as if I had just said the moon was made by Martians. This theory of the moon’s origin has been replaced by at least two newer theories (even the scientists can’t agree -- more about this in a future post) and neither of them involve the depth of the Pacific Ocean.

So, feel free to bring your disbelief to the table of scientific inquiry. Conduct your own research, generate a new set of facts to share, and help us improve the world of science.

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