Scientific Thinking

August 1996

The following is a summary of Dr. Sherman Dickman's lecture to the Humanists of Utah at our July meeting. His subject was, "The Scientific Perspective: A New Way of Thinking for the non-Scientist."

Science has been able to achieve its goals due to a specific way of thinking. Science has changed the world in the past 200 years more than the world changed in the previous 2000 years. Scientific thought:

  • Assumes regularity in nature.
  • Requires honesty in reporting of results. Science would have gotten nowhere if cheating were as prevalent in business as reported in the Wall Street Journal.
  • Has increased knowledge as its only objective. It is non-materialist in nature.
  • Is non-dogmatic and is always open to change.
  • Relies on human curiosity to ask questions to which answers can be obtained by experiment or observation.
  • Utilizes mathematics whenever possible.

Scientific thought and discussion must be distinguished from "common sense." Scientific thinking also avoids metaphors common to psychology and religion. Metaphors can be defined as calling something what it isn't. Logic uses well defined terms. For example a diagram of the brain cannot be accurately labeled as a piece for consciousness, unconsciousness, id, ego, etc. However, physical regions of the brain have been well known and described for many centuries.

Science is a second language. It uses many terms in a different way than the usual common sense definition as contained in the dictionary. "Observation" is a good example. People tend to believe what they observe and will defend their observations with pride. Scientists, with their constant questioning, will not take personal ownership of an egocentric concept. Common sense definitions tend to be qualitative in nature, where the scientific counterpart is quantitative. Observations to a scientist are quantifiable data collected and documented during experiments. These observations must always be able to be reproduced independently to be accepted by the scientific community. The word "truth" is rarely if ever used in scientific journals.

This type of scientific thinking needs to be taught in the public schools from the earliest grades. This is necessary because many people over 30 years of age are unwilling to change their minds about anything.

There are different kinds of knowledge: subjective, personal based upon experiences, thoughts, emotions, perceptions, etc. This subjective knowledge is used to screen objective knowledge. This can cause varying interpretations of the same data by different people. Subjective knowledge is valid only to the individual until confirmed by others. We must realize that our innermost thoughts and beliefs may not be true for anyone except ourselves.

Common sense is based on long-term experience, or so called old-wives', (old-men's? old people's?) tales. Generalizations have been in place for hundreds of years. Some are valid and some have been shown to be invalid by scientific investigation. Often these traditional tales do not control for variables. For example, if an earthquake occurs, it might be attributed to the people being evil or some other non-related concept.

Scientific knowledge is based on experiments and confirmed observations with carefully controlled variables. The "facts" are always subject to change. Newtonian physics is a subset of Einstein's concepts. Science not only accepts uncertainty, but views it as necessary. Scientific descriptions are highly predictive and explanatory.

It is important to become aware of assumptions: for example, we assume that our next breath will include oxygen. Carefully conducted scientific investigations describe, recognize and control all assumptions. Turnbull, a Scottish anthropologist, described a situation where he spent several months among Pygmies in Africa. He went into great detail describing how these diminutive people could move easily through the thick underbrush of the forest they lived in. When it came time for Turnbull to return home, he invited one of the natives to accompany him. When they broke out of the forest into a large clearing, there was a herd of cows grazing in the distance. Turnbull queried his friend as to what he thought the animals in the distance were. The native replied that they were so small that they must be ants. Turnbull tried to explain that they were large animals to no avail. As they traveled on, the "ants" became "dogs" and then "horses" and finally cows. The Pygmy became very perplexed; he had never been out of the jungle and had no concept on how distance affects the size of objects. Our assumptions grow directly from our personal experience.