What Science Isn't - Some popular misconceptions about science include:

  1. Hypotheses Become Theories Which Become Laws
    Many believe that scientific ideas pass through the hypothesis and theory stages and finally mature as laws. A former U.S. president showed his misunderstanding of science by saying that he was not troubled by the idea of evolution because it was "just a theory." The president's misstatement is the essence of this myth; that an idea is not worthy of consideration until "lawness" has been bestowed upon it. Laws are generalizations, principles or patterns in nature and theories are the explanations of those generalizations
  2. A General and Universal Scientific Method Exists
    The steps listed for the scientific method vary but usually include:
    1. define the problem
    2. gather background information
    3. form a hypothesis
    4. make observations
    5. test the hypothesis
    6. draw conclusions
    7. communication of results
    One of the reasons for the widespread belief in a general scientific method may be the way in which results are presented for publication in research journals. The standardized style makes it appear that scientists follow a standard research plan. Philosophers of science who have studied scientists at work have shown that no research method is applied universally. Close inspection will reveal that scientists approach and solve problems with imagination, creativity, prior knowledge and perseverance. These, of course, are the same methods used by all problem-solvers. The lesson to be learned is that science is no different from other human endeavors when puzzles are investigated.
  3. Science and its Methods Provide Absolute Proof
    Tentativeness is one of the points that differentiates science from other forms of knowledge. Accumulated evidence can provide support, validation and substantiation for a law or theory, but will never prove those laws and theories to be true.
  4. Science Is Procedural More Than Creative
    Only the creativity of the individual scientist permits the discovery of laws and the invention of theories. Unfortunately, many common science teaching orientations and methods serve to work against the creative element in science. The majority of laboratory exercises, for instance, are verification activities. The teacher discusses what will happen in the laboratory, the manual provides step-by-step directions, and the student is expected to arrive at a particular answer. Not only is this approach the antithesis of the way in which science actually operates, but such portrayal must seem dry, clinical and uninteresting to many students. In her book, They're Not Dumb, They're Different (1990) Sheila Tobias argues that many capable and clever students reject science as a career because they are not given an opportunity to see it as an exciting and creative pursuit.
  5. Science and its Methods Can Answer All Questions
    Philosophers of science have found it useful to refer to the work of Karl Popper (1968) and his principle of falsifiability to provide an operational definition of science. Popper believed that only those ideas that are potentially falsifiable are scientific ideas. For instance, the law of gravity states that more massive objects exert a stronger gravitational attraction than do objects with less mass when distance is held constant. This is a scientific law because it could be falsified if newly-discovered objects operate differently with respect to gravitational attraction. In contrast, the core idea among creationists is that species were placed on earth fully-formed by some supernatural entity. Obviously, there is no scientific method by which such a belief could be shown to be false. Since this special creation view is impossible to falsify, it is not science at all and the term creation science is an oxymoron. Creation science is a religious belief and as such, does not require that it be falsifiable. Hundreds of years ago thoughtful theologians and scientists carved out their spheres of influence and have since coexisted with little acrimony. Today, only those who fail to understand the distinction between science and religion confuse the rules, roles, and limitations of these two important world views. It should now be clear that some questions simply must not be asked of scientists. Science simply cannot address moral, ethical, aesthetic, social and metaphysical questions.
  6. Scientists are Particularly Objective
    Scientists are no different in their level of objectivity than are other professionals. They are careful in the analysis of evidence and in the procedures applied to arrive at conclusions. It is impossible to collect and interpret facts without any bias. There have been countless cases in the history of science in which scientists have failed to include particular observations in their final analyses of phenomena. This occurs, not because of fraud or deceit, but because of the prior knowledge possessed by the individual. Thomas Kuhn (1970), in his ground-breaking analysis of the history of science, shows that scientists work within a research tradition called a paradigm. This research tradition, shared by those working in a given discipline, provides clues to the questions worth investigating, dictates what evidence is admissible and prescribes the tests and techniques that are reasonable. Although the paradigm provides direction to the research it may also stifle or limit investigation. Examples of scientific ideas that were originally rejected because they fell outside the accepted paradigm include the sun-centered solar system, warm-bloodedness in dinosaurs, the germ-theory of disease, and continental drift. Although the examples provided do show the contrary aspects associated with paradigm-fixity, Kuhn would argue that the blinders created by allegiance to the paradigm help keep scientists on track. His review of the history of science demonstrates that paradigms are responsible for far more successes in science than delays.
  7. Experiments are the Principle Route to Scientific Knowledge
    True experiments involve carefully orchestrated procedures along with control and test groups usually with the goal of establishing a cause and effect relationship. Of course, true experimentation is a useful tool in science, but is not the sole route to knowledge. Many note-worthy scientists have used non-experimental techniques to advance knowledge. In a number of science disciplines, true experimentation is not possible because of the inability to control variables. Many fundamental discoveries in astronomy are based on extensive observations rather than experiments. Scientific knowledge is gained in a variety of ways including observation, analysis, speculation, library investigation and experimentation.
  8. All Work in Science is Reviewed to Keep the Process Honest
    In reality, most scientists are simply too busy and research funds too limited for this type of review.

McComas, William, Vol. 96, School Science & Mathematics, 01-01-1996, pp 10.