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Introduction

Newton's Cradle AnimationI believe that, for most students, this chapter is probably the most important and most useful material in the course. Most students are not going to become professional scientists, fewer still are going to become physicists. Yet all students will live in a world full of science and technology - every minute of every day of their lives will be touched by science and technology in some way. Also, all students will influence science and technology, as (hopefully) informed and active participants (at least, hopefully, voters) in our society. It is critically important that our citizens have a sophisticated understanding of the methods, philosophy, and practice of science.

"Many texts teach the "scientific method" illustrated step-by-step. The idea that there is such a method, or that memorizing the steps can be helpful, is anathema to practicing physicists." The Physics Teacher, Vol. 37, May 1999, p. 297

I used to think that Chapter 1 - "About Science" in the Hewitt book - particularly "1.3 The Scientific Method" was very simplistic and disappointing. Certainly, science is NOT a simple-minded step-by-step process. Science is a complex, wonderful, and highly successful enterprise. To say that "scientific method" can be summed up in a fifth-grade-ish five step list is almost insulting. I certainly have no doubts that Prof. Hewitt knows what science is about - immediately after listing a 5-step "scientific method" he states:

"Although this cookbook method has a certain appeal, it is not the universal key to the discoveries and advances in science." Conceptual Physics, Third Edition, p. 2

So, why list the 5-step "scientific method"? Probably just because his editors insisted - you can't sell textbooks without it! Teachers like it, since it is very testable. (My hypothesis.)

On the other hand, having tried to improve on the text's presentation, I have a much deeper respect for the enormity of the problem. In particular, I now realize that my earlier efforts suffer from much the same problems as the 5-step scientific method, just in a different guise. Science is such a massive and complex undertaking that just about anything (but not everything) that you say about science will be false - in some instance, and on some level. Only adding to the problem is the fact that the average practicing scientist (if there is such a thing...) doesn't spend a lot of time philosophizing about what she is doing in her day-to-day work, and is as likely to misuse and abuse science terms as the "man in the street".

So, as you read, please keep in mind the adage:

"All Generalizations are False"

Certainly, this was never truer than in a discussion of the methods of science!

Here are some interesting quotes on science and scientific method.


About Science Table of Contents:

For a detailed list of expectations, see the Terms and Objectives.


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last update September 18, 2003 by JL Stanbrough