Periodically, I revisit some of my earlier posts to identify if an update with new information is warranted. One of those posts deemed worthy of an update is STEM: What is Science? An accompanying question is Why is Science Always Changing?, the subject of today’s post.
Why is science always changing? This question gets asked at least a few million times each year. Before I attempt to provide an explanation, let’s revisit the question: What is science? Several definitions are provided in my earlier post, STEM: What is Science?
To answer the question for this post, I turned to the folks at Understanding Science, a website produced by the UC Museum of Paleontology of the University of California at Berkeley, in collaboration with a diverse group of scientists and teachers, and was funding from the National Science Foundation:
Science is, in one sense, our knowledge of all that — all the stuff that is in the universe: from the tiniest subatomic particles in a single atom of the metal in your computer’s circuits, to the nuclear reactions that formed the immense ball of gas that is our sun, to the complex chemical interactions and electrical fluctuations within your own body that allow you to read and understand these words. But just as importantly, science is also a reliable process by which we learn about all that stuff in the universe. However, science is different from many other ways of learning because of the way it is done. Science relies on testing ideas with evidence gathered from the natural world. [Ref 1]
The above explanation of science is a pretty good one. However, is it enough to explain why science keeps changing? A simplistic answer is that science is always changing because the world is always changing. Add to that, each day we learn more and more about this changing world. Doug Adolph, a Texas State engineering student gives the following example: Think of science as a person who grows from child to adult. New experiences and evidence change a person’s perception. As they grow, things they previously believed change because of new evidence and experience.
This brings me back to the first paragraph of this post. Some of the topics that I write about are constantly changing and being added to on a daily basis. For my blog, the price of gasoline is one such topic. I have been following gas prices since the inception of this blog. Needless to say, they have changed a lot during this time, and the reasons are not always predictable.
A software engineer and one of my Quora buddies, Mai Hassan, puts it this way: Science doesn’t ever change. What really changes is our understanding and our perception to everything around us.
She goes on to say, “For example: Remember the old theories about the earth being flat? These theories have been concluded based upon the limited methods of research which was available in those days —- only observing. But nowadays, we all know that the earth is not flat. Our new methods of research and technologies helped us to know that. Now answer this, does the earth changed from being a flat to spherical or just we changed our way of seeing the facts? Here’s the thing: the natural world is always changing along with what we know about it.”
Accepted theories explain how the world works. They have been thoroughly tested, are supported by multiple lines of evidence, and have proved useful in generating explanations and opening up new areas for research. However, science is always a work in progress, therefore even theories change. [Ref 1]
Science investigates difficult questions about unknown fields, and scientists are human, so it is inevitable that scientific findings will not be perfect. However, science works by continuously studying a topic. This means that results get checked and rechecked with further findings. The reason some findings change is because they get corrected. This process of correction helps make science one of the most successful areas of human endeavor.
As more evidence accumulates, scientific findings become more and more certain. Theories that have withstood several decades of study may undergo more refinement of details, but it is almost inconceivable that they would be overturned completely.
“In the long run, the greatest gift of science may be in teaching us, in ways no other human endeavor has been able, something about our cosmic context, about where, when and who we are.” — Astronomer Carl Sagan, in The Demon-haunted World, 1996
For additional reading on related topics, see:
- Understanding Science: An Overview, https://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/0_0_0/intro_01
- Claim CA250, The Talk Origins Archives: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy, Egilson, G.H. 2003. For creation. Post on talk origins, 23 Oct., Message-ID, http://www.talkorigins.org/indexcc/CA/CA250.html