THE NATURE OF SCIENCE

In broadest terms, scientists seek a systematic organization of knowledge about the universe and its parts. This knowledge is based on explanatory principles whose verifiable consequences can be tested by independent observers. Science encompasses a large body of evidence collected by repeated observations and experiments. Although its goal is to approach true explanations as closely as possible, its investigators claim no final or permanent explanatory truths. Science changes. It evolves. Verifiable facts always take precedence.

Scientists operate within a system designed for continuous testing, where corrections and new findings are announced in refereed scientific publications. The task of systematizing and extending the understanding of the universe is advanced by eliminating disproved ideas and by formulating new tests of others until one emerges as the most probable explanation for any given observed phenomenon. This is called the scientific method.

An idea that has not yet been sufficiently tested is called a hypothesis. Different hypotheses are sometimes advanced to explain the same factual evidence. Rigor in the testing of hypotheses is the heart of science, if no verifiable tests can be formulated, the idea is called an ad hoc hypothesis—one that is not fruitful; such hypotheses fail to stimulate research and are unlikely to advance scientific knowledge.

A fruitful hypothesis may develop into a theory after substantial observational or experimental support has accumulated. When a hypothesis has survived repeated opportunities for disproof and when competing hypotheses have been eliminated as a result of failure to produce the predicted consequences, that hypothesis may become the accepted theory explaining the original facts.

Scientific theories are also predictive. They allow us to anticipate yet unknown phenomena and thus to focus research on more narrowly defined areas. If the results of testing agree with predictions from a theory, the theory is provisionally corroborated. If not, it is proved false and must be either abandoned or modified to account for the inconsistency.

Scientific theories, therefore, are accepted only provisionally. It is always possible that a theory that has withstood previous testing may eventually be disproved. But as theories survive more tests, they are regarded with higher levels of confidence.

In science, then, facts are determined by observation or measurement of natural or experimental phenomena. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation of those facts. A theory is a hypothesis that has gained wide acceptance because it has survived rigorous investigation of its predictions.



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