What is Science?
One thing I emphasize with my students – as I’m sure many of us do – is that science is really two things. Most people will think of science as being facts, lists of elements and the strata of the Earth’s crust. It’s true that a lot of what we want students to learn is factual, but to see this as the whole of science is missing the point. These facts include processes, methods for working out chemical equations and techniques for practical tasks. Although these are more challenging, this still isn’t what science is really about.
Science is a way of looking at the world. We have an idea, what we call a hypothesis, that applies somehow to the real world (or universe). We examine a situation, perhaps one we’ve set up ourselves called an experiment, and collect data. When we analyse this data, it tells us if our hypothesis truly describes the real world or not. Either way we can now give a better hypothesis, a description of the world that is, in some way, a better match to reality. This process, simple and elegant, has turned into a separate assessment target where we need to teach our kids ‘how science works’, as if it’s separate from all the facts we’ve discovered using it.
Of course, what matters here is not only what we know, but being able to change things that aren’t right. This is what makes science fascinating, tricky and sometimes downright irritating. Because by this reasoning, science isn’t about facts at all. Everything is subject to change. Any fact could, in principle, be corrected or amended. This is the loophole that intelligent design enthusiasts and Flat Earth fanatics love to exploit. What they tend to miss out is that the more evidence we collect (and both evolution and a spherical Earth have a lot of evidence these days) the less likely it is that a theory will turn out to be wrong.
What isn’t Science?
It’s really easy to mix up science (knowing stuff) with technology (using those facts. The best analogy I found is that science ‘makes’ ideas – knowledge is the end result of doing science. If science is a black box which we feed data, the product is understanding. Aeroplanes, medical treatments, iPhones and a better mousetrap are all products of a different black box, technology. You can’t have technology without science but you can have science without technology, rare as that is these days. Most of the ideas we could figure out simply with a pen and paper are long since solved. On my final year project, back in the mists of time, I spent months producing the samples (layered semiconductors), a while creating the leads for the device I would use to measure the characteristics, a day doing the actual *&$%£* ‘experiment’ then another month analysing the data. Every stage used technology, but what I was doing (badly) was science.