The Way of Science



Welcome to a most unusual science class! Together, we will take a fantastic journey through our strange and wonderful Universe:
  • imagining how the Universe began
  • viewing particles so small that they stagger our imagination
  • viewing the incredible vastness of the space
  • thinking about the possible fate of the Universe
and through our own planet, the Earth:
  • looking at the beginning of the Earth
  • seeing how the continents were formed
  • understanding how all living things evolved from common ancestors.
We will learn to understand the methods scientists use to gather data, make and test explanations, draw inferences, and come to conclusions. We will take many side trips to look at interesting topics along the way. Please buckle up for the take off.

I. Goals for this course

  1. Our first goal is to help you think more like a good scientist. We will emphasize thinking about the quality of evidence and using logical methods. We will look at various claims and examine the evidence for those claims to see how reliable they are. We will apply the scientific method to topics commonly we encounter in everyday life. This skill will help us not to be taken in by con artists and bad science.

  2. Our second goal is to introduce you to some of the fundamental models or main principles that form the foundations of the natural sciences. We have only a limited time so we will concentrate on answering the following questions:
    1. From geology: Why does the Earth look the way it does? (Plate Tectonics)
    2. From biology: Why are there so many kinds of creatures? Why are those creatures so varied? (Evolution)
    3. From physics: Why does the Universe look the way it does? (Big Bang model of Cosmology)

  3. Scientific developments are not always smooth sailing; they are accompanied by conflict, argument and uncertainty. In our third goal, we hope to make you aware of some conflicts among scientists, between science and politics and between science and religion.

  4. Our final goal is for you to enjoy this course-to become so interested in science that you want to continue by reading about it or even by becoming a science minor or major!

II. Scientific Literacy

Polls tell us that most Americans are not scientifically literate. The general public lacks the ability to understand the scientific process and doesn't have a basic knowledge of scientific facts. Most college students are like that, too. [See for information about the public's understanding of science and technology.] Hazen and Trefil (1991) wrote that Americans have not been adequately exposed to science, and lack the knowledge needed to cope with life.

Let's start by checking to see how well we can distinguish science facts from trash.
  1. Here are some headlines (slightly reworded) from the past few years. Some are well-supported by credible evidence, and some are total garbage. Which are true?
    1. Tobacco plants glow in the dark.
    2. Trees talk to each other.
    3. Cannibals shrink space alien's head.
    4. Atlantis found in the Pacific; ancient maps lead scientists to shimmering undersea empire.
    5. Scientists make diamonds from peanut butter.

  2. Which one of the following statements is correct?
    1. Hybrids of mouse and man have been made.
    2. Man is descended from the living ape species.
    3. Evolution is only a theory, not a fact.
    4. There is little genetic basis for complex human behavior; all of it is learned.
    5. Of the addictive substances in use today, cocaine (including "crack") is responsible for the largest number of deaths.

  3. Here are some related questions from the book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequence by J. Paulos (1990, New York: Vintage). You might enjoy reading this book. We have several copies available.

    1. A firm has sent you, for free, six consecutive correct stock index predictions. Would you be reasonably convinced of their accuracy, and thus pay for a seventh stock prediction?

    2. In a sex-discrimination case in California, a group of women sued a university. Their suit was based on the fact that a much higher proportion of qualified women than qualified men were refused admission to the graduate programs. The university did not dispute those figures, but argued that, in fact, they were preferentially favoring the admission of women. Isn't that a contradictory statement?

    3. Ms. X is 33, unmarried, and assertive. She graduated magna cum laude from college with a degree in political science. She was a campus activist, and much involved in civil rights movements. On the basis of these data, which of the following two statements is more probable?
      1. Ms. X now works as a bank teller.
      2. Ms. X now works as a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

    4. During the first half of the baseball season, Babe Ruth has a higher batting average than Lou Gehrig. During the second half of the season, Babe Ruth again gets higher batting average. But for the season as whole, Lou Gehrig has a higher batting average than Babe Ruth. Can this be true?
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© copyright 2005, Michael Wirth and Sachiko Howard, New England College