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Nature of Scientific Discovery

Updated on March 19, 2014

Science Finds Order and Meaning in our Lives

In order to discuss scientific discovery, we must first understand what science is, or at least what we consider science to be in this day and age, for the concept has changed over the centuries. Jacob Bronowski, in his essay "The Nature of Scientific Reasoning" defines science as "...the search for unity in hidden likenesses." He later tries to put it in the context of our lives, "Science finds order and meaning in our experience, and sets about this in quite a different way." Thomas Kuhn, on the other hand, in his essay "The Route to Normal Science" defines science as the study of "paradigms" and suggests that "....some accepted examples of actual scientific practice - examples which include law, theory, application, and instrumentation together - provide models from which spring particular coherent traditions of scientific research." The acquisition of these paradigms is a sign of scientific maturity. By Kuhn's definition then, modern scientific discovery is a recent phenomenon brought about by the fumblings of various schools of thought. While these schools made contributions to concepts, and techniques, their members are considered scientists merely because they contributed to the more orderly, modern notion of science.

Bronowski defines the process simply, "The progress of science is the discovery at each step of a new order which gives unity to what had long seemed unlike.." In one sentence he is able to define Thomas Kuhn's paradigm. The evolution of the concept of science is relevant to our accounting for scientific discovery, as Darwin's theory was relevant to our understanding of our own existence. How we get to that understanding, to the paradigm, is an interesting and often misunderstood process.

Observation is the first step. Before the tenants of scientific research, observation was the be all and end all. Called "Inductivism" it was where great scientists were considered... "primarily great observers and patient accumulators of information....Yet, as its critics so rightly claimed, inductivism also depicted science as a heartless, almost inhuman discipline offering no legitimate place to quirkiness, intuition, and all the other subjective attributes adhering to our vernacular notion of genius," states Stephen Jay Gould in is essay "Darwin's Middle Road". Initially we observed in order to sustain ourselves and get what we needed to survive in an often harsh environment. It is unknown how man first learned to smelt copper ore and create tools. Perhaps, he witnessed a lightening bolt strike a rock, or a forest fire melt stone. Mans observations of the environment and all things in it was the catalyst, and curiosity the force behind the eventual progress. So it went for centuries observing and then applying what was observed to daily life.

The limitations and pitfalls in this kind of observation include complacency. The ancient Greeks believed in the four elements, Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire and that these elements were responsible for all observable phenomenon. Most people took it for granted and went on with their lives, just as they accepted the notion of the sun revolving around the earth. After all it was observable that the sun traversed the sky while the observer stood in one place.

Copernicus, on the other hand, decided that such was not the case, that the planets revolved around the sun. The Scientific Revolution had begun and it did so not with what was observable but with something even more remarkable, imagination. Bronowski explains, "...he did not in the first place find by routine calculation. His first step was a leap of imagination - to lift himself from the earth, and put himself wildly, speculatively into the sun." It is this leap of imagination which has consistently advanced scientific discovery. We must be cautious though, when speaking of leaps of the imagination, for it can account for some notions that today may seem particularly odd, but at the time seemed plausible. As a scientist, Copernicus' leap of imagination would not have been possible if it weren't for all the other scientist/observers that came before him. After Copernicus, Johannes Kepler was attracted to the idea of a sun centered universe. Through his calculations Kepler devised the first modern "natural laws" expressed in mathematical terms. These laws described the paths of planets. Bronowski depicts them like this, "They have a solid, matter-of-fact sound. For example. Kepler says that if one squares the year of a planet, one gets a number which is proportional to the cube of its average distance from the sun." Such laws were not found by taking readings and randomly squaring and cubing things. A scientist takes information and processes it through his imagination. Inevitably this makes for some brilliant and accurate theories, as well as for the rather bizarre. Kepler for instance..."wanted to relate the speeds of the planets to the musical intervals," Bronowski goes on, "To us, the analogies by which Kepler listened for the movement of the planets in the music of the spheres are farfetched. Yet are they more so than the wild leap by which Rutherford and Bohr in our century found a model for the atom in, of all places, the planetary system?" Kepler's contribution to science is irrefutable, but in hindsight some of his valuable contributions are seen as furthering later scientific discoveries while others, some of his more imaginative ideas, seem absurd.

The way in which we perceive facts and interpret information is also relevant to the discussion of scientific discovery, for point of view has often accounted for it. Frequently our perception of such an event does not coincide with the actual event. We habitually miss-quote Shakespeare to further our meaning rather than to accurately portray his words. Gould gives just such an example in the case of Darwin. "According to the traditional view, Darwin discovered these finches correctly inferred their history, and wrote the famous lines in his notebook." In truth it went more like this... "He reconstructed the evolutionary tale only after his return to London, when a British Museum ornithologist correctly identified all the birds as finches." His observations failed him, but his interpretation of information made him famous. Even that was a much rockier road than we have been led to believe, Gould explains, "Natural selection did not arise from any direct reading of the Beagle's facts, but from two subsequent years of thought and struggle..." His search was not limited to the facts either, his quest included the reading of philosophers, poets, and economists. He was always searching for meaning. Darwin struggled with his various theories and ideas before finally coming up with Natural Selection, but then he had the luxury of interpretation. He developed a paradigm that scientists use to explain and perform all sorts of experiments because they are convinced of its accuracy.

Science and scientific thought can be persuaded in many different directions. Good science can be performed and bad conclusions can be made. Anne Fausto-Sterling states in her essay "Society Writes Biology", "Truth, bias, objectivity, prejudice. In recent years both defenders and critics of the activities of modern Western scientific community have used these words with certain abandon as they engage in debate about the role of science and the scientists in our culture." She uses the example of an eighteenth century debate between Ovists who believed that the embryo developed solely from the egg and those who believed that it developed from semen. Fausto-Sterling introduces us to Abbe Lazzaro Spallanzani a well respected, talented scientist of the time who was also an Ovist. He performed careful experiments which attest to his talent as a scientist, but the conclusions he drew from them were wrong. Fuasto-Sterling explains, "Because he interpreted his investigations within a particular theoretical framework - that of Ovism - his mind was closed to alternative conclusions that seem obvious to those not so committed." Due to his stature as a scientist of the times his "results" dominated biological thought on fertilization. How can something so wrong, be thought to be so right? We see the errors in hindsight, but what if Darwin's paradigm of Natural Selection proves to be just as flawed by future generations, because it was based on his interpretation of information. If, as Bronowski states, "Science finds order and meaning in our experience...," then the scientist has great authority to determine such meaning.

Luckily, for the most part, scientists are logical people, influenced by their own biases though striving for objectivity. Their discoveries must be conclusions gained by acceptable scientific methods and based on established paradigms. It is the transformation of these paradigms which accounts for scientific revolution and progress. Generally these shifts occur when imagination is put to use.

So scientific discovery has advanced from mere observation to combine with opinion, and imagination. Indisputably our modern technology is a result of concrete information, the laws of physics, and countless other disciplines that arose out of the three attributes mentioned above. To argue that gravity is not responsible for the movement of the planets would be ludicrous in this day and age, yet the debate over what makes up the Universe itself is very much in the stages of pure conjecture.

On the one hand scientific discoveries are still determined by our needs, or by the desire to make our lives easier, just as the stone age observer found ways to do the same. We may pat ourselves on the back for our technological advances, but must remain humble because there are many roads we could take. Fausto-Sterling cautions, "The language used to describe ‘the facts’ has channeled experimental thought along certain lanes, leaving others not only unexplored but unnoticed." As technologically advanced as we claim to be, our particular outlook has led us in a certain direction. What other directions might exist? In assessing scientific discovery we assess our own willingness or reluctance to follow certain ideas and thrust ourselves into the future still seeking understanding and a sense of unity.

The Norton Reader ninth Edition, An Anthology of Expository Prose; Linda H. Peterson, General Editor; Joan E. Hartman; John C. Brereton. W.W. Norton & Company, New York - 1996.


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