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The nature of scientific knowledge

Page history last edited by Ben Dreyfus 12 years, 10 months ago

Class content >Introduction to the class > Thinking about thinking and knowing


By this point in your scientific career you've been studying science for many years and in many contexts: in elementary school, high school, and college; in courses in biology, chemistry, and perhaps in physics before this class.  It is often said -- and it may seem to you -- that:


     Science is about figuring out how the world works.


And depending how you restrict the phenomena you are considering, you get biology, chemistry, or physics.  But as you go on in science, it is valuable to take a subtler point of view and say:


     Science is about figuring out how we can think about how the world works.


The added words may seem obvious -- or even trivial.  But they imply an important shift in perspective that has implications both for creating new science and for learning about existing science.  It sharply places the activity of science as a decidedly human activity, and it warns us to be aware of the limitations of our own brains. This leads to three important implications.


  • Science is a communal activity. 
    • By working together we can build on each others' strengths and fill in each others' weaknesses. I doubt that I would have had the insight and creativity to create either Einstein's relativity or Mendel's discrete genetics, but once I learn from them I can use both and possibly develop new insights built on them.
    • Through critical dialog (conversation in which we probe the correctness of our ideas), we help each other correct our mistakes and develop new insights. This is a bit strange at first, since critical dialog looks superficially like attacks on each other.  But it's not supposed to be about criticizing each other but about finding the right idea.  A good way to learn to "depersonalize" the criticism is to take turns defending and criticizing the same idea.
  • Scientific training changes the way we think as individuals.
    • Science creates a culture that provides scientists with tools and methods that let us create and understand longer and more complex chains of reasoning than we could without scientific training.
    • Through training as scientists, we learn to internalize the critical dialog and analyze our own work.
  • Science is not just about what we know, but about how we know it.
    • A critical element of science is to learn to examine and understand why we accept something as scientific truth.
    • Some things in science we know very well and it's not worth most of our time and effort thinking about it.  Other things are less certain, but we might want to assume them and see how they work out.  For yet others, we might want to "wait and see" until more data is in. 
    • This is going to be particularly important for medicine and biology in the next few decades as both fields are learning fast.  Some of what is learned early is going to turn out to be wrong later.  Learning to evaluate claims and evidence is an essential skill. 


Whether you become a practicing scientist, a health care professional, or a business executive managing a corporation that uses scientific knowledge, you will often be involved with either solving scientific problems or else evaluating someone else's solution of scientific problems.  The point of science is that it doesn't just let us collect a set of known solutions -- flash cards of results; it helps us to figure out what's going to happen in new situations, often with long chains of reasoning bringing lots of diverse knowledge to bear.  This is what problem solving is all about; and it's a very general and important competency for anyone wanting to deal with the complex and scientific situations of the twenty-first century.


An important implication of all this is:


     Learning to do science means learning to talk about science with others.


Science is not just a set of facts; not even just a set of procedures.  Science is a conversation, a dialog. Often, ideas in science are subtle; often scientific arguments when not clearly thought out can lead to wrong results. Science uses community to get it right by proposing and challenging ideas. In a good scientific discussion, at one time one individual may defend an idea, while in another part of the discussion the same individual may switch roles and challenge it. The point is not "Whose idea is it?" but rather "Which idea is correct?" It often takes a team to solve a complex problem.


One of the most important skills to learn in a science course is how to have the scientific conversation -- how to decide not just "what the right answer is" but to have good reasons and a good understanding of how you know what the right answer is. This is best learned in challenging discussions about problem solving with your peers. Don't be afraid to propose something that might be wrong or to challenge someone else's idea! (But of course do it in a friendly and non-threatening way. Remember -- the conversation is about what's right, not who's right.) Once you learn to have these conversations with others you can learn to have them with yourself, strengthening your personal skills and abilities as a scientist.


To  use science effectively, you need to go beyond seeing science as a set of "known facts" or even as a set of "tools and processes" that you might pull out and run automatically without thinking.  You have to begin to see science as a way of knowing.  And to understand that, it helps to understand a little about how your mind works. Go on to the section


     Models of memory


Joe Redish 7/3/11

Comments (1)

Julia Gouvea said

at 4:13 pm on Jul 23, 2011

I will want to create some links to the modeling page at some point.

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