We explain what scientific knowledge is and what it pursues. Characteristics of scientific knowledge and concrete
What is scientific knowledge?
Scientific knowledge is the set of verifiable knowledge given by certain thanks to the steps contemplated in the scientific method . That is, those knowledge obtained through the rigorous, methodical and verifiable study of the phenomena of nature.
Scientific knowledge is based on evidence and is included in scientific theories : consistent and deductively complete sets of propositions around a topic of scientific interest, which describe it and give it a verifiable explanation. These theories can be renewed, modified or even substituted by another one to the extent that their results or interpretations respond better to reality and are consistent with other scientific postulates proven as true.
It is often thought that scientific knowledge, as well as religious or mystic knowledge, is based on pure faith in the interpretation of facts ; which is not really true, since unlike magical, pseudoscientific or religious discourses, science is based on the verifiability of its appreciations, applying experimental, repeatable and duly bounded mechanisms.
Thus, contrary to what its common meaning suggests, a scientific theory is not simply a hypothesis (“one more theory”), but a complex and complete formulation that gives meaning to the results obtained experimentally. When scientific laws are demonstrated and integrated into a theoretical scientific perspective, they acquire the rank of Theory.
Characteristics of scientific knowledge
Scientific knowledge is based on research : the collection of data from previous scientific experiences , as well as own experimental procedures, which when replicated under controlled conditions, can be more fully understood.
Scientific knowledge is classified into two categories:
- Tacit knowledge . It is about the technical , technological or theoretical knowledge that is characteristic of the person, that is, that they are part of his encyclopedia of the world and the perspective that the culture to which he belongs belongs. They are not formally learned through study or education .
- Explicit knowledge . They are those formal, specialized scientific knowledge, which must be acquired through bibliography , formal courses or educational institutions, since they have to do with accumulated scientific knowledge.
Scientific knowledge is characterized, mainly, by being a critical and well-founded knowledge, which proceeds in a methodical and systematic way; its conclusions are verifiable; the knowledge that it throws up is unified, ordered, universal, objective, communicable, rational and provisional, which, in short, makes it possible to explain and predict facts or phenomena by means of laws or principles.
- Critical : because it distinguishes between what is true and what is false, what is true and what is debatable.
- Grounded : because it bases its knowledge on evidence and data obtained through methodical and rigorous analysis.
- Methodical : because it uses research methods and certain procedures that give rigor to study, observation and analysis.
- Verifiable : because it can be proven by experience.
- Systematic : because it constitutes a system of interrelated and connected ideas.
- Unified : because its object is general and not singular knowledge.
- Universal : because its validity is the same for everyone, there is no room for cultural relativity.
- Objective : because the findings have a general value and not individual or subjective.
- Communicable : because it can be communicated through scientific language.
- Rational : because intelligence and human reason are fundamental in it.
- Provisional : because today’s finding can be refuted tomorrow by means of a more precise theory.
- Explanatory : because it explains the facts and phenomena of reality and nature through laws or principles that are common and constant.
Examples of scientific knowledge
Some concrete examples of scientific knowledge can be:
- The mathematical theorems of Pythagoras, Greek philosopher of antiquity, which are still valid more than 2000 years later and are formally taught at the school.
- The biochemical understanding of antibiotics from the discovery of penicillin in the twentieth century and its medical administration to fight infections.
- Isaac Newton’s formulations on movement , which today have the rank of laws and are taught in the physics subject .
- The description of the processes of respiration and photosynthesis carried out by animal and plant beings respectively.
- The understanding of the human anatomy at a level that allows the practice of transplants.
- The study of the conformation of the solar system and the movements of the planet earth, as well as its impact on our daily lives: day and night, weather stations, solstices, etc.
- The discovery of electricity and the capacity of transmission, accumulation and use of it, which led to a true industrial and technological revolution.
- The detailed explanation of the water cycle or water cycle in its various phases.
- The understanding of the atom and the forces it contains, set in motion in peaceful atomic energy and atomic bombs of the twentieth century.
- The explanation of the origin of the tremors and earthquakes in the tectonic plates of the earth’s crust.
- The discovery of the microscopic life that gave rise to the long-term pasteurization and preservation of food , forever changing the way we eat.
Empirical knowledge is what we get from direct experience with the world , and that is limited to what our senses and perceptions tell us. In that way, it is far from being a source of absolute truths, since we can perceive things that are not (or erroneously perceive them), and even not perceive things and forces that are there but are invisible.
It is, however, an important ingredient of scientific knowledge, since not all research experience can be mediated by books or what was said before by others, but must be able to face experimentally in an empirical, face-to-face, concrete way.
Other types of knowledge
Other forms of knowledge are as follows:
- Empirical knowledge . The one that is acquired through direct experience, repetition or participation, without requiring an approximation to the abstract, but from the things themselves.
- Philosophical knowledge . He who emerges fromhuman thought , in the abstract, using various logical methods or formal reasoning, which does not always follow directly from reality, but from the imaginary representation of the real.
- Intuitive knowledge . The one that is acquired without a formal reasoning, quickly and unconsciously, the result of often inexplicable processes.
- Religious knowledge . One who is linked to the mystical and religious experience, that is, to the knowledge that studies the link between the human being and the divine.
The construction of Scientific and Technological knowledge in the organizational life of research groups in networks
Scientific knowledge present in everyday life
Science has always been a minority activity. In Mexico, for example, out of every 10,000 inhabitants, only two are scientists. And it is that to be a researcher it is a requirement to study at least the university, but in our country of every hundred children who enter primary school, less than 20 finish a degree, and of them, only 2 are dedicated to science.
Although 99 percent of people apparently live far from science, scientific knowledge is present in everyone’s life. And it is not only essential to understand how the world works, but to make better individual and collective decisions, from assessing health risks to the dangers of pollution, deforestation, dams, nuclear energy or open-pit mining. … Whether we realize it or not, knowledge is necessary for our well-being.
As 90 percent of scientific research is done in public universities -such as the Universidad Veracruzana or the UNAM-, financed with the taxes of society, the institutions have a “return” commitment, that is, they recognize their duty to share that knowledge not only with students and teachers in their classrooms, but with those outside of them and who directly and indirectly support them.
To do so, university students seek to bridge what they call “the gap” between science and society; the distance between that knowledge that comes from research and everyone else’s everyday life. The public communication of science is one of the proposals to achieve this.
Diffusion, Disclosure or Communication?
What are public universities doing so that scientific knowledge is no longer alien to 99 percent of society? It depends on your intentions and who you want to reach. They can disseminate, disseminate or communicate science.
Diffusion, for example, is the communication that scientists make of their own research: chemists speak of Chemistry, biologists of Biology, each specialist explains what their work is about or the importance of it, generally it depends more on their achievements and It seldom evaluates whether its message impacted other sectors.
Dissemination seeks the same thing but through various channels to reach the widest possible public -simplifying or recreating science- but in both cases it is the scientists or disseminators who decide the science that is necessary or a priority to disseminate, what is the message, how to present it and to whom, almost always without feedback from those who receive the message, that is, communication is one-way.
However, the communication of science, and specifically the public communication of science, seeks first to know the social needs to know what and how to influence, support and contribute to social welfare, taking as a starting point the vision and context of others , of that 99 percent who do not do science and sometimes do not even know it.
From this perspective, in addition to promoting scientific work, it is possible to share the knowledge that is most relevant to citizens, which is linked to their concerns and needs in which the knowledge that the University welcomes and generates is relevant, such as change climate and its effects on the most vulnerable communities, for example.
In addition, science communication seeks to generate specific responses in specific communities: from knowledge, the generation of opinions or the change of attitudes, to the adoption of habits and practices or the use of knowledge derived from research for decision-making .
As the public communication of science considers the needs and problems of people, it needs to divide the formerly called «general public» into groups, either because of their knowledge of a topic and its context, because of their age, schooling, language, geographic location. , technological literacy, access to communication channels, interests, etc.
The products, media, channels and supports used in science communication vary: from journalistic texts to audiovisual productions, plays, workshops or long-term community work, exhibitions, electronic pages, information capsules, interviews, posters, e- books, podcasts , museums, graphic novels and others, or a combination of them. The central thing in science communication is the design of the strategy -with clear objectives and target audiences-, the means and formats to carry it out remain in the background.
Science and Light
In 2011, the Universidad Veracruzana created a space to promote the social impact of science in Veracruz: the Science Communication Directorate, made up of a team of professionals that develops activities in three areas of work: linking, training and research.
Its priority is to socialize scientific knowledge with relevance and social commitment, through the management, creation, linking and promotion of university initiatives of public communication of science that have a favorable impact on specific communities. This highlights the institutional commitment to offer and participate in social development in the region.
Science and Light is a space destined to respond to those social needs, a space to expose in a mass media not only the science that is done in UV and the importance that scientists emphasize, but also the knowledge that has been the basis to develop it, knowledge that has not always been available to everyone.
How scientific knowledge tries to approximate reality?
For a long time, humans have wondered what is hidden behind the appearance of things, and they have made an effort to make explicit relationships between their knowledge and the ordinary perception of the world. At present, we live in a society that looks to science in search of solutions to the serious problems that humanity faces. We are living the progressive alignment of citizens with respect to the practices, ideas and methods that scientists use in their research. It is not surprising that many citizens are dazzled by the apparent implications of the theories and lose sight of the fact that between the realms of theory and reality there is a space of uncertainty that is difficult to overcome.
On the other hand, a distorted vision of science is widely spread, which tends to be, among other things, dogmatic, not very creative, individualistic, algorithmic and socially decontextualized. Many of these same erroneous characteristics of science can be found even in science textbooks.
In this regard, the article by Treagust, Chittlenorough and Mamiala in which it is concluded that high school students mostly think that the models made by scientists are an exact copy of reality is particularly striking. It should not be unreasonable to think that the most socially accepted image of science implies that its knowledge is capable of penetrating inside the physical reality of the world and that, under this assumption, said knowledge offers us a visible and palpable real world. This image is part of the so-called realistic conception of science, according to which science aspires to give true descriptions of what the world really is, that is, it provides true theories that correctly represent physical reality.
However, some thinkers like Russell already harshly criticized this realistic conception of science. For Russell, experimental data only very limitedly reflect reality and science does not properly investigate the real physical world. On the contrary, science builds a theoretical, functional world, which it applies to the real physical world. With this, the author shows that science does not provide a description of reality, but rather symbolic images of reality that are derived from its theoretical assumptions.
The objective of this work is to try to clarify the relationships between science and physical reality through the elements and instruments that scientific knowledge uses in its development and the analyzes, normally based on the history of science, that different epistemologists do in the same way. in which science is developed and advances. In this way, we hope to contribute in a modest way to give a more adequate and humane image of scientific knowledge, with its corresponding limitations in accessing the complexity of reality.
Constituent elements of scientific knowledge
Scientific knowledge is made up of several elements: theories, with their body of laws that guide research; the fundamental constants; and the relevant observations in light of these theories. Scientific theories are the constructs by which science attempts to represent scientific knowledge, and there are three main conceptions of theories: syntactic, structural, and semantic.
The syntactic conception takes mathematics and logic as a model, considering a scientific theory as a formal system that differs from mathematics in that the non-logical concepts of scientific theory come from an empirical interpretation. According to this conception, the meaning of concepts is always defined from observational concepts. The structural conception also considers scientific theories as formal systems, although it differs from the previous one in that formal structures do not have to be from mathematical logic. For the so-called semantic conception, scientific theories are formed by the set of models and the hypotheses that relate the models to physical reality. For this conception, hypotheses are linguistic entities and, as such,
Scientific theories try to give an image of reality and to establish relationships with the impressions coming from our senses. Thus, according to Einstein and Infeld, through theoretical constructions an attempt is made to grasp reality. For this, science begins with the proposal of fundamental concepts and, based on them, attempts are made to explain systems and natural events. In the progress of science, concepts are destroyed and new ones are generated.
Then we will present a metaphor, the metaphor of the plot, which helps to understand what concepts are and what role they play in theories. A scientific concept is a knot in a plot whose threads are the propositions that make up the theory. Its meaning, therefore, is intimately linked by the threads that come together to the knot and the knots to which it is linked. As a theory develops, it becomes known to me about the threads that make up the plot, and thus the concepts involved are better understood. Concepts, propositions, and observations are the elements from which scientific theories are built.
Both the hypothesis and the theory are propositions that try to explain natural events. The hypothesis is the first explanatory attempt. The theory has already successfully passed, among other things, empirical testing. Khun establishes the characteristics of a good scientific theory:
It must be precise: its deductible consequences must agree with the results of experiments and observations
It must be consistent: both internally, and with other already accepted theories
It must be broad: its consequences must be extended beyond observations or particular laws for which it was originally intended.
It should be simple: organize ideas that in isolation would be confusing
It must be fruitful: generate new research results
Thus, theories are the instruments that science uses to advance and they have two aspects: an explanatory and a practical one. For this reason, theories are perishable: in the history of science we can find theories that gave way to new ones (phlogiston, ether, etc.).
Also in the history of science there are examples where scientists instead of starting from data from observation and using them to confirm or reject proposed laws or theories, use a theory accepted by the scientific community that guides their research and determines the way how to deal with observed phenomena. The theory determines the meaning of observed events by providing the scientist with reasons to understand which observations are relevant to his investigation and which others pose problems. In this context, certain observational discoveries that could be counterexamples became research problems to be solved through the application or development of the theory. I called this type of scientific research Kuhn normal science,
Models to get closer to reality
When scientists wish to capture reality, they begin by idealizing it and developing a model object or conceptual model of the system or phenomenon under study. Then, said model object is inscribed within a specific theoretical scheme: it becomes a theoretical model. We must bear in mind that every theoretical model does not capture more than a part of the particularities of the system or phenomenon represented, and that if it does not agree with the experimental data, the theoretical ideas that support it will have to be modified. Thus, a theoretical model is no more than a fallible tool used by scientists, whose acceptance depends exclusively on its emporic success and which acted as a mediator between theory and reality.
One of the virtues of models is that they can be described with the help of diagrams, diagrams and even, sometimes, with the help of a material anologue. In this way, they allow us to approach systems inaccessible to our senses, such as electrons or galaxies. However, we must point out that although diagrams, diagrams and material analogs can be very useful to understand difficult ideas or to generate new ideas, they do not replace the model object or conceptual model. That is, they cannot represent real systems in such a precise and complete way as a set of propositions of a theoretical model does and, furthermore, they are not part of the theories.
Finally, what functions do models fulfill in the advancement of science? In the opinion of Gilbert and Osborne, essentially two:
Simplify systems and phenomena to focus attention on the most relevant issues
Stimulate investigations through visualization of systems and phenomena
On the other hand, these authors highlight the position of models as intermediaries between theory and reality in scientific reasoning. According to Lakatos, the scientist concentrates on the construction of models within his research program and, on occasions, models are replaced not because of disagreement with experimental observations, but because of theoretical difficulties in developing his research program. Thus, for example, Newton drew up a model for the Solar System with the Sun and a planet as fixed points, and from this he derived his law of the inverse square of distance. However, this model contradicted his third law of dynamics, and ended up substituting it for another in which the Sun and planet revolved around their common center of gravity. As we see,
On scientific explanations
Scientific explanation is a methodological concept that tries to make natural systems and phenomena understandable and facilitates the advancement of knowledge. In the work of Gonzalez the question of scientific explanations and the problem of their characterization are analyzed, and the opinion of two authors E. Nagel and WC Salmon is highlighted, which we will briefly expose. For Nagel there is a connection between the why of the facts, and the existence of diversity of scientific explanations. This author distinguishes four types of scientific explanations. In each of them it is assumed that there is a fact to be explained or explicandum, and that to answer why an explicans is needed .In the first type or deductive model, an argumentation is used where the explicandum is a logical consequence of explanatory premises. Thus, when a particular event is explained, a universal law is needed in the premises to deduce the explicandum and a series of initial conditions that specify the case. The second type is probabilistic explanations, in which the explanatory premises do not formally imply the explicandum. That is, the arguments that are presented do not start from premises that ensure the truth of the explicandum,but they can make it probable. The third type is constituted by teleological or functional explanations, where a future state is set in which a certain event is justified. The fourth type of explanation is called genetic. E t hese reconstruct a sequence of events by which a system has evolved over time.
It should be noted that the first type of scientific explanation proposed by Nagel is taken from Hempel’s nomological-deductive model, considered as a paradigm of scientific explanation of logical empiricism. Following this model of explanation, there are no fundamental differences between explanation and prediction: the explanation of a phenomenon is carried out through subsumption to laws.
Several issues stand out from Salmon, although it is relevant to note that he is fiercely critical of teleological explanations, since historically the physical and biological sciences have made significant progress in eliminating them. This author offers three visions of scientific explanation: the epistemic, the modal and the ontic. According to the first view, the scientific explanation must meet two conditions: it must be either a valid deductive argument or a correct inductive argument, and it must contain a universal law. The modal view reflects that explaining means showing that what happens had to happen in view of the explanatory facts. The ontic vision considers that what we consider correct explanations depends on our state of knowledge. Salmon argues that it is an error to think that we have found the only correct explanation for a certain event, as it is also wrong to believe that we have found the only cause of a certain effect. Identifying a cause is often a situation similar to giving an explanation.
To conclude this point, a warning: it is not possible to identify a theoretical explanation with the extraction of empirical laws from theoretical postulates by means of logical, mathematical and correspondence rules. That is, theories do not explain empirical laws, they simply tell us why observable things obey those laws. Thus, for example, the kinetic theory of gases does not explain the empirical Boyle-Mariotte law (relationship between pressure and volume of a quantity of gas kept at constant temperature). This theory explains why gas molecules under the given experimental conditions behave in a certain way.
About the provisional nature of scientific knowledge
Scientists who investigate within the framework of an accepted theory must learn how this theory works, that is, they must know the set of paradigmatic propositions of said theory and know how to apply it to specific problems. Scientists combine the information offered by the external world and the theories they assume. Let us always bear in mind that different scientists can see different things even though it is the same thing that they observe. This is what happened to Kepler and Tycho Brahe in their observations of the Solar System. It is but a consequence that observation depends on knowledge, experience and beliefs; namely, it is loaded with theory. Under normal conditions, the researcher is not an innovator but a puzzle solver,
However, it can also uncover anomalies and challenge accepted theories. Two factors were at work: on the one hand, theories provide a description of what is to be seen, namely, they allow anomalies to be discovered; on the other hand, it is not only the theory that determines the event, but the theory in conjunction with reality. When the theory and the real structure of the event do not fit, anomalies appear, which can be interpreted through the accepted theory, or become anomalies that lead to the overthrow of the theory and its replacement by another, that is, to a scientific revolution. It should be noted that, using the metaphor of the plot,in the course of a scientific revolution, concepts are transformed. Threads are removed, others are redirected, and new ones are introduced. The concept may retain part of its characteristics, because certain threads remain, but it ends up modifying its meaning. But in a change in theory, not only does the meaning of the concepts change, the associated empirical observations also change. The reason must be sought in that both concepts and observational data derive their meaning from their location in the theoretical plot.
The new theories are applicable to the physical world to a degree that in many respects exceeds that of the old theories. The purpose of science is to establish the limits of applicability of theories and develop them in such a way that they allow the closest possible approximation to reality. This point of view is called unrepresentative realism. This conception assumes that the physical world is independent of our knowledge and theories do something more than establish relationships between observational statements. It interprets that theories do not describe entities of the world in the way that everyday language does. For this reason, theories cannot be judged as descriptors of the world, since we do not have access to reality independently of our theories in a way that allows us to evaluate the accuracy of the descriptions.
In relation to this question, we want to show that controversial situations can occur for a given theory. We will point out two cases: in the first, the circumstance of not having adequate grounds to validate or refute a certain hypothesis arises; in the second, two theories of the same area of knowledge are accepted by two different groups of scientific communities.
We must remember at this point that science is not the result of particular individuals but of scientific communities and that, consequently, theories are, in reality, social products subject to change. Furthermore, as Chalmers points out, it happens with some frequency that scientific theories have their origin in the social world outside science in the strict sense. This same author provides us with an example taken from the physical sciences. It is the kinetic theory of gases introduced by Maxwell in the 19th century. This scientist based his analysis of the random movements of gaseous molecules on the statistical techniques used by social theorists to explain the regularities in the birth or crime rates.
By way of conclusion
Scientists use theories as instruments to represent the body of knowledge that exists at any given time. In their desire to interpret the physical world that surrounds them and, within their research programs, they make use of models, intermediaries between theory and reality, which allow them to approach where their senses cannot reach, but let’s not forget that reality it is independent of its theories. In addition, scientific explanation helps them in understanding and advancing knowledge.
On the other hand, all these processes are carried out within the dominant cultural, social, economic and philosophical context that can influence them in a decisive way. In fact, scientific theories must obtain the approval of the scientific community to be definitively accepted. Theories are always subjected to emporic testing and, if anomalies appear, they are reviewed and / or replaced. Ultimately, the scientist accepts that he can only approximate reality through his theoretical constructions, theoretical models, which help him to carry out his research program by determining where and how they should focus their attention. But you must always keep in mind that these theoretical constructions do not describe reality as our everyday language does and, consequently,
Finally, to say that we fully subscribe to the opinion expressed by Holton: “The erroneous apprehensions of those who are outside the science of how scientific ideas are obtained or how they are put to the test, are at the base of many difficulties that men of science encounter (…). Scientific policy in a democracy depends on long-term factors, such as the popular understanding of science as a cognitive activity (…). “. Fortunately, as Latour points out, “there are always a few, scientifically trained or not, who open the black boxes of science so that those outside can take a look. They bear different names (historians of science, sociologists, philosophers, teachers, etc.) and are classified in most cases with the general label of groupscience, technology and society “.