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Inquiring Minds

Plato and His Disciples in the Garden of the Academy

Inquiring minds can learn about science through a variety of techniques. Structured inquiry relies on an outline of procedures with activities designed for discovering relationships and making generalizations about the data. Guided inquiry allows students to develop procedures and methods for examining concepts about a specific problem. Open inquiry challenges students to create and solve science principles, interpret data, and draw conclusions. Resources on the Web can supplement the inquiry lessons in your classroom. Explore these sites for ideas and activities.

Being skeptical is nothing new, of course. Skepticism dates back 2,500 years to ancient Greece and Plato's Academy. But Socrates' quip that "All I know is that I know nothing" doesn't get us far. Modern skepticism has developed into a science-based movement, beginning with Martin Gardner's 1952 classic, Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. Gardner's numerous essays and books over the next four decades, such as Science: Good, Bad, and Bogus (1981), The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher (1991a), and On the Wild Side (1992), established a pattern of incredulity about a wide variety of bizarre beliefs. Skepticism joined pop culture through magician James "the Amazing" Randi's countless psychic challenges and media appearances in the 1970s and 1980s (including thirty-six appearances on the Tonight Show). Philosopher Paul Kurtz helped create dozens of skeptics groups throughout the United States and abroad, and publications such as Skeptic magazine have national and international circulation. Today, a burgeoning group of people calling themselves skeptics-scientists, engineers, physicians, lawyers, professors, teachers, and the intellectually curious from all walks of life - conduct investigations, hold monthly meetings and annual conferences, and provide the media and the general public with natural explanations for apparently supernatural phenomena.

Modern skepticism is embodied in the scientific method, which involves gathering data to test natural explanations for natural phenomena. A claim becomes factual when it is confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement. But all facts in science are provisional and subject to challenge, and therefore skepticism is a method leading to provisional conclusions. Some things, such as water dowsing, extrasensory perception, and creationism, have been tested and have failed the tests often enough that we can provisionally conclude that they are false. Other things, such as hypnosis, lie detectors, and vitamin C, have been tested but the results are inconclusive, so we must continue formulating and testing hypotheses until we can reach a provisional conclusion. The key to skepticism is to navigate the treacherous straits between "know nothing" skepticism and "anything goes" credulity by continuously and vigorously applying the methods of science.

The flaw in pure skepticism is that when taken to an extreme, the position itself cannot stand. If you are skeptical about everything, you must be skeptical of your own skepticism. Like the decaying subatomic particle, pure skepticism spins off the viewing screen of our intellectual cloud chamber.

There is also a popular notion that skeptics are closed-minded. Some even call skeptics cynics. In principle, skeptics are not closed-minded or cynical. What is mean by a skeptic is one who questions the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it. In other words, skeptics are from Missouri - the "show me" state. When we hear a fantastic claim, we say, "That's nice, prove it."

Skepticism is a vital part of science, which is defined as a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation: In other words, science is a specific way of analyzing information with the goal of testing claims. Defining the scientific method is not so simple, as philosopher of science and Nobel laureate Sir Peter Medawar observed: "Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be and he will adopt an expression that is at once solemn and shifty-eyed: solemn, because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty-eyed, because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare."

A sizable literature exists on the scientific method, but there is little consensus among authors. This does not mean that scientists do not know what they are doing. Doing and explaining may be two different things. Science, of course, is not rigid; and no scientist consciously goes through "steps." The process is a constant interaction of making observations, drawing conclusions, making predictions, and checking them against evidence. And data-gathering observations are not made in a vacuum. The hypotheses shape what sorts of observations you will make of nature, and these hypotheses are themselves shaped by your education, culture, and particular biases as an observer.

This process constitutes the core of what philosophers of science call the hypothetico-deductive method, which, according to the Dictionary of the History of Science, involves: (a) putting forward a hypothesis, (b) conjoining it with a statement of "╦ťinitial conditions,' (c) deducing from the two a prediction, and (d) finding whether or not the prediction is fulfilled." It is not possible to say which came first, the observation or the hypothesis, since the two are inseparably interactive. But additional observations are what flesh out the hypothetico-deductive process, and they serve as the final arbiter on the validity of predictions. As Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington noted, "For the truth of the conclusions of science, observation is the supreme court of appeal."

A theory may be contrasted with a construct: a nontestable statement to account for a set of observations. The living organisms on Earth may be accounted for by the statement "God made them" or the statement "They evolved." The first statement is a construct, the second a theory. Most biologists would even call evolution a fact. Through the scientific method, we aim for objectivity: basing conclusions on external validation. And we avoid mysticism: basing conclusions on personal insights that elude external validation.

There is nothing wrong with personal insight as a starting point. Many great scientists have attributed their important ideas to insight, intuition, and other mental leaps hard to pin down. Alfred Russel Wallace said that the idea of natural selection "suddenly flashed upon" him during an attack of malaria. But intuitive ideas and mystical insights do not become objective until they are externally validated. As psychologist Richard Hardison explained, Mystical "truths," by their nature, must be solely personal, and they can have no possible external validation. Each has equal claim to truth. Tealeaf reading and astrology and Buddhism; each is equally sound or unsound if we judge by the absence of related evidence. This is not intended to disparage any one of the faiths; merely to note the impossibility of verifying their correctness. The mystic is in a paradoxical position. When he seeks external support for his views he must turn to external arguments, and he denies mysticism in the process. External validation is, by definition, impossible for the mystic.

Science leads us toward rationalism: basing conclusions on logic and evidence. For example, how do we know the Earth is round? It is a logical conclusion drawn from observations such as: The shadow of the Earth on the moon is round. The mast of a ship is the last thing seen as it sails into the distance. The horizon is curved. Photographs from space.

And science helps us avoid dogmatism: basing conclusions on authority rather than logic and evidence. For example, how do we know the Earth is round? Our parents told us. Our teachers told us. Our minister told us. Our textbook told us. Dogmatic conclusions are not necessarily invalid, but they do beg other questions: How did the authorities come by their conclusions? Were they guided by science or some other means?

It is important to recognize the fallibility of science and the scientific method. But within this fallibility lies its greatest strength: self-correction. Whether a mistake is made honestly or dishonestly, whether a fraud is unknowingly or knowingly perpetrated, in time it will be flushed out of the system by lack of external verification. The cold fusion fiasco is a classic example of the system's swift exposure of error.

Fundamental interaction

In physics, a fundamental interaction or fundamental force is a mechanism by which particles interact with each other, and which cannot be explained in terms of another interaction.
  1. Gravitation is by far the weakest interaction. Gravity has an infinite range, like that of electromagnetism. All masses are positive and therefore gravity's interaction cannot be screened like in electromagnetism. Gravitational force cannot be absorbed or transformed, and so is permanent.
  2. Electromagnetism is the force that acts between electrically charged particles. This phenomenon includes the electrostatic force, acting between charges at rest, and the combined effect of electric and magnetic forces acting between charges moving relative to each other.
  3. The weak interaction or weak nuclear force is responsible for some phenomena at the scales of the atomic nucleus, such as beta decay.
  4. The strong interaction, or strong nuclear force, is the most complicated force because it behaves differently at different distances.

Because of the importance of this self-correcting feature, among scientists there is at best what Caltech physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman called "a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty - a kind of leaning over backwards." Said Feynman, "If you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid-not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results."

Despite these built-in mechanisms, science remains subject to problems and fallacies ranging from inadequate mathematical notation to wishful thinking. But, as philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn (1977) noted, the "essential tension" in science is between total commitment to the status quo and blind pursuit of new ideas. The paradigm shifts and revolutions in science depend upon proper balancing of these opposing impulses. When enough of the scientific community (particularly those in positions of power) are willing to abandon orthodoxy in favor of the (formerly) radical new theory, then and only then can a paradigm shift occur.

Perhaps the single greatest unexplained mystery of the past six decades is the worldwide upsurge in reports of strange objects that fly through the skies at high speed, often in formation and often exhibiting behavior that suggests they are the product of intelligent design far in advance of mankind's current technology. In a world that contains inexplicable wonders, some things are all too explicable. When it's springtime at Loch Ness, sightings of "Nessie" are apt to heat up, just as the first tourists arrive.

Michael Shermer. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time . Henry Holt and Company, New York. 2002.


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