Some Facts, and Many Misconceptions of Modern Science

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: UNDERSTANDING THE MISCONCEPTIONS OF SCIENCE

By Don Lincoln, Ph.D., University of Notre Dame

In May, 1543, modern science was born when Nicolaus Copernicus published his ‘opus De revolutionibus orbium coelestium’ or, ‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’. This book laid out mathematical arguments for the heliocentric universe and rejected geocentrism, that the Sun, and not Earth, was the center of the universe. Is modern science a collection of facts or a way of generating testable hypotheses? And, what are the misconceptions about science?

A picture showing different elements of our universe, many of them created by science.
The contribution of modern science in our life is immense in terms of electricity, germ theory of disease, power of atoms, etc. (Image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock)

The Impact of Modern Science

The discipline of science had a bigger impact on humanity than any other development like philosophy, religion, and art. Some important advances were made even before modern science was developed, like the taming of fire, metallurgy, animal husbandry, and shipbuilding. But modern science greatly accelerated our progress. Over the last five centuries, humans have learned to exploit electricity and magnetism, understood the germ theory of diseases, and even harnessed the power hidden inside the nucleus of atoms. Chemists have created substances that have vastly simplified their lives. Cancer can be treated and vaccinations can make children live past their infancy.

Science can also be intimidating with facts, figures, and equations, for that reason, many people leave science to the scientists. A scientist or a physicist spends years immersing in fascinating corners of the natural world, spending their entire life in a constant state of wonder, as they uncover the laws of nature. Instead of digging deep into the science, most people learn what they were taught in school.

Learn more about the myths of orbital motion.

Modern Scientific Subjects

Illustration by Efbrazil shows the different branches of science taught in schools but with only moderate details about them.
Teaching a wide range of science subjects, in-depth, was not possible for teachers in the school, possibly only in special classes. (Image: Efbrazil/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Science teachers in schools were able to convey a great deal of information on a vast range of scientific topics like biology, geology, astronomy, chemistry, and physics. However, in teaching such a huge array of subjects, compromises must have been made. Teachers had to teach things that weren’t wrong but were only a piece of the full story. Students might have learned about the ideal gas law in chemistry with good approximation, but that was not completely accurate. They also may have learned about the Bernoulli equation of how planes could fly, but it did not explain how planes could fly upside down.

Einstein’s special theory of relativity, which said that humans can’t go faster than light was true. However, sometimes the reason cited for not being able to go faster than light was because an object’s mass increased with going faster, which was wrong.

Learn more about the molecules and atoms of chemistry.

Misconceptions about Science

Common misconceptions of science taught in advanced classes were often believed by people with scientific education. The ways it was taught were not right. Teachers had to make decisions on how they presented the material and sometimes telling a partial truth was a way to get across a big idea. For instance, teaching people that whole ‘mass increases as you go faster’ was a way to convince students that they can’t go faster than light. Quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of special relativity are two subjects, full of common misconceptions.

Scientific Facts

What is science? Many people would say that science is a collection of facts, like the Earth is four and a half billion years old or the Egyptian pyramids were made by aliens using UFOs, the latter leading into the core essence of what science is? Science isn’t a series of facts, but, a way of observing the world and generating testable hypotheses, which can be confirmed, like the age of the Earth, or falsified, like the whole UFO/pyramid connection. Once confirmed, hypotheses are taken as facts, which in science can be soft things. Those are not facts like for example, George Washington was the first President of the United States, but more malleable, like Newton’s law of gravity, a good scientific theory that can be used to calculate orbital parameters and rocket trajectories, and accurately send a probe to Pluto. When Newton’s theory of gravity was proven to be incomplete, it was replaced by Einstein’s theory of general relativity. Scientific facts and ideas keep changing as new information comes in, the flexibility of which gives it such power. Ideas work to a needed level of accuracy, as long as they work, but are discarded when new information comes in or a higher level of accuracy is needed.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the Misconceptions of Science. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Understanding Cause and Effect

Facts themselves aren’t science. The science includes determining facts and seeing how those facts could be woven together to tell a bigger story. It’s about understanding cause and effect and distinguishing those two things from simple correlation. Correlation is a term for saying that two things happen together. But correlation isn’t causation; which means that just because two things happen together doesn’t mean that one causes the other.

Illustration by Dotted Yeti shows a demo of cause and effect concept.
The concept of cause and effect does not mean that when two things happen together, one causes the other. (Image: Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock)

For example, geese fly south in the fall, and, a few months later, it snows. It’s not that the geese keep the snow away, but both phenomena can be explained by the orbit of our planet, governed by the law of gravity and some historical accidents which determined the tilt of the Earth.

Common Questions about Science

Q: What is Nicolaus Copernicus famous for?

Nicolaus Copernicus is famous for laying out mathematical arguments for the heliocentric universe and rejecting geocentrism where he said that the Sun, and not the Earth, was the center of the universe.

Q: What are the characteristics of modern science?

The main characteristics of modern science are that it is a collection of facts, hypotheses, flexibility, and ever-evolving science for a higher level of accuracy.

Q: Who invented gravity?

Sir Isaac Newton invented the law of gravity, a scientific theory used to calculate orbital parameters. Newton’s theory of gravity was proven to be incomplete, it was replaced by Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Q: Why do we teach cause and effect?

Cause and effect are taught to distinguish two things from simple correlation, that two things happen together. But correlation isn’t a condition, because two things happen together do not mean that one causes the other.

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