March 5, 2010

Scientific Misconceptions, Part 3

by Heather Falconer

Wrapping up the week, we’d like to focus on one last misconception that permeates the general population about science and its practice. This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty more we could write about – we could spend a year talking about the different ways the process of science is misrepresented both in general education and the media. But that would border on overkill. If you’re interested in learning more, though, you can visit here.

Since we’ve used “Climategate” as our focus on these misconceptions, we thought it only appropriate to conclude with a focus on controversy. Therefore:

Misconception #3: Controversy is resolved when experiments prove a theory right.**

As has been shown in the last decade, the more concrete evidence scientists from all disciplines provide to confirm human influence on climate, the more controversy escalates. Many take this to mean that scientists are disagreeing about the data – ignoring the fact that good research takes opposing views into account. But is that really what is happening?

Mike Hulme has written an engaging book, Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity that discusses exactly where this controversy originates – and it’s not the science. As is often the case with other, non-scientific controversies, cultural and political concerns inform opinions. In the case of science, every time an experiment is conducted, regardless of the outcome, new questions are created.

For the non-scientist, this never-ending process of asking questions can be daunting. We’re used to asking questions, getting answers, and moving on. But for the scientist, it simply a matter of “peeling an onion.” The scientific process provides the opportunity to ask a question, gather information, then ask deeper questions to reveal the intricacies of the subject. The more questions are asked and answered, the closer we get to forming cohesive theories and ways of understanding the world.

It can be confusing when experts have conflicting opinions, mainly because most of us don’t have the educational and professional training to understand what, exactly, they are disagreeing about. Unfortunately, these diverging opinions often get taken up by various camps whose ideology they support and interfere with the conversation of science. And worse, the seed of doubt about many of these theories is placed not by scientists, but by individuals with political interests. The more politically and culturally relevant the topic, the more heated the controversy.

Click here for more information and learning materials on the process of science.

**J. Ryder and  J. Leach. “Interpreting experimental data: the views of upper secondary school and university science students” (2000) International Journal of Science Education 22(10), 1069-1084

Heather Falconer

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Heather Falconer holds undergraduate degrees in Graphic Arts and Environmental Science, as well as an MFA in Writing and an MLitt in Literature. She is currently completing her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition, with an emphasis on rhetoric in/and/of science. Heather has worked internationally in academic publishing as both an author and editor, and has taught a wide range of topics – from research writing to marine biology – in the public and private educational sectors.