Remarks on Teaching Science and the Nature of Science
Chris Quigg

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Science is one source and symbol for an imaginative, disciplined mind. In addition to giving us basic information we need to make sense of the natural world, the sciences teach us to identify and scrutinize our assumptions, to hone our powers of analysis, and to expand our capacity for synthesis. They impart great lessons for any vocation: to link cause with effect, to search for relevant evidence, and to seek the truth without self-deception.

As a method for exploring—for finding things out—science lives by its disdain for Authority and its reliance on experimentation and observation. The seventeenth-century gentlemen who founded the Royal Society of London took as their motto Nullius in verba—Don't take anyone's word for it! Scientists are human. They have limited powers, they make mistakes, they have incomplete knowledge, they may be too bold or too cautious in interpreting their findings. Science is a system by which imperfect beings can test and refine their understanding of the world.

Like the practice of science, the study of science must be more than acquiring a collection of facts. An awareness of how scientists think and how science is done helps us realize its limitations. Scientists are accustomed to dealing with doubt and uncertainty. Good scientific advice may be frustratingly conditional: sometimes scientists don't know enough to give a straight answer; sometimes Nature just can't be pinned down. And there are some issues—like moral choices—that science by itself can only inform, not resolve.

Scientific exploration is open-ended: today's facts are merely precise statements of what scientists understand at this particular time, not eternal truths. Science is organic, tentative; like life itself, science is a becoming, a great adventure of the human mind and spirit.

29 September 2004 lecture for the DuPage Division of the Illinois Association of School Boards. · © Chris Quigg.