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Table of Contents
Science isn't what your high-school chemistry teacher told you it is. Neither is it the old movie cliché of men in white coats, disheveled Einsteinian hair, and wild eyes, in a laboratory full of bubbling retorts and flashing electric coils, performing earthshaking experiments that reveal some long-hidden reality; nor is it a matter of blindly voyaging into uncharted realms, like Captain Kirk and the starship Enterprise, to discover something no one has ever seen before. The truth is a good deal more subtle and interesting--and it is critical to understanding the workings of our Earth, the significance of the changes in scientific thinking we are now undergoing, and the implications of that change for our future.
What Science Is, and How It Really Works
Science is no monolith. There isn't a single science from which all the various disciplines--e.g., biochemistry, physics, astronomy, and zoology--derive. I have friends, for example, who are devoting their research careers to the laboratory task of characterizing groups of related proteins. This empirical, highly specialized pursuit is definitely science, but it's not anything like what I do as a geologist and paleontologist who is a generalist by choice. I find myself closer to the nineteenth-century naturalists like Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt. These thinkers were drawn to collecting and analyzing facts and making sense of them in a way that, by allowing us to comprehend, experience, and appreciate the order inherent in nature, provides an understanding at once intellectually useful and esthetically satisfying. My work is both empirical and philosophical.
Still, despite the obvious differences between Charles Darwin, myself, and my protein chemist friends, all scientists agree on certain points. It is these agreements that make science an enterprise as distinct and definite as writing poetry, designing a skyscraper, or deriving a mathematical proof.
All scientists share a fundamental agreement on the primacy of natural law. Fundamentally, everything we observe in the natural world depends on relationships between matter and energy governed by the fundamental physical-chemical forces and constants, such as gravity, relativity, and thermodynamics, that make up natural law. Science doesn't allow for divine intervention or miracles as explanations for natural phenomena. This doesn't mean that scientists cannot be spiritually inclined or religious--in fact, many are--but divine intervention lies outside the bounds of scientific analysis. Science requires its practitioners to be rigorous, consistent, and logical in a natural world without supernatural apparitions or divine interference.
Likewise, all branches of science share a commitment to testing their ideas against the real world. A proposed scientific theory may boast a delightful elegance, but if it does not stand up when tested against reality, then it has no value as science. To me, this is the most important aspect of science: theoretical explanations of natural phenomena that can be tested against the real world. Without such testable explanations, we don't really know which facts to look for, yet it is the facts themselves, whether derived from laboratory experiment or from observations in the natural world, that ultimately determine the worth and validity of the ideas. As we proceed more deeply into this exploration of time, catastrophe, and history, we shall see again and again how fact and explanation are interwoven and in some ways mutually dependent.
A further aspect of scientific thinking, particularly near and dear to my heart as a working scientist, is parsimony, also known as Occam's razor or the principle of economy. William of Occam (also spelled Ockham), a fourteenth-century scholastic philosopher, wrote, "Never is multiplicity to be postulated without necessity," and "It is vain to do with more what can be done with fewer." Occam's devotion to simplicity still holds. There's no reason for a scientific explanation to be more complicated than it has to be. If more than one solution or explanation is posed to resolve a given problem, the simplest explanation is the best.
Parsimony does not mean that an idea must adhere to scientific status quo. The history of science is full of examples of new, parsimonious explanations that ran counter to the scientific orthodoxy of the day. The new look at the Earth explored here is appealing in part because it offers a superior, simpler explanation than the formerly accepted view.
Science stands out, too, for being progressive. We can't say that poetry or painting gets better over time. There is no clear arc of improvement reaching from Dante to William Butler Yeats or from Michelangelo to Andy Warhol. You or I may prefer one poet or painter to another, but preference isn't the same thing as progress. Science, unlike art, does progress. We know more now than we did five years ago, and our knowledge is vastly larger today than it was five centuries in the past.
This is not to say, however, that knowledge in general can't backslide or even be lost. During the European Dark Ages of the early medieval period, practically the entire body of learning and literature from classical Greece and Rome was lost to the Western world and reintroduced through Arab scholars centuries later. Likewise, it appears that important knowledge from ancient civilizations is only now being rediscovered, a point we will develop in detail later. Still, it remains true that over the past five hundred years science has built on itself. It has constantly changed as new ideas have replaced old, outmoded notions and we have moved toward better, more profound explanations of nature.
Excerpted from Voices of the Rocks: A Scientist Looks at Catastrophes and Ancient Civilizations by Robert A. McNally, Robert M. Schoch
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