A scientifically-based conclusion may appear to be a simple statement of fact: typhoid is caused by a microbe or oxygen is a by-product of photosynthesis.
But before these statements were taken to be facts and taught in science classes, they had been viewed by most people as little more than mad speculations.
Scientific argument from evidence was the catalyst that brought about their transformation from the chimeric to the real. (Osborne, 2018)
For the five thousand years before the emergence of science, much of what passed for wisdom was in fact false: that the Earth was the motionless center of the Universe; that articles fell towards Earth because they yearned to do so; and that women had one fewer ribs than men were all accepted as undoubted facts. One of our great human weaknesses is that we are willing to believe nearly anything if it has been uttered or written by someone of established authority, for example, ancient philosophers or religious prophets.
However, by the seventeenth century enough of this supposed wisdom had revealed itself to be wrong. The Earth was shown to move. Newton showed that objects fell towards Earth because of gravity; both women and men had twelve pairs of ribs. Prototypical scientists, the natural philosophers like Robert Hooke, began to test what had been accepted facts by trying them out to see if they actually worked, and eliminating those that didn't. The work of pioneering natural philosophers has led to the development of argument as the foundation for how to identify factual information from the false, the bogus, and even the fraudulent. (Feynman, 1974)
Argument from evidence is how we compensate for the unreliability of our senses and what is misleadingly called common sense.
We humans are very good at fooling ourselves, of seeing what we hoped or expected to see. Even highly trained scientists can fool themselves as the example of Martin Fleishman, one of the world's leading electrochemists, and Stanley Pons, an electrochemist and chair of the chemistry department at the University of Utah, has shown.
In March of 1989 these two well-respected scientists claimed to have discovered that they had found a new electrochemical phenomenon that produced "excess heat" and the products of nuclear fusion at room temperatures. The results were widely reported that Fleishman and Pons had discovered a new source of cheap and abundant energy. The finding was celebrated in the press. A new institute was funded at the University of Utah to exploit the commercial value of the new phenomenon.
Despite their scientific credentials and their reputations, Fleishman and Pons' claim was no more valid than if it had come from an unknown investigator. Before the claim could be accepted as a scientific finding, it needed to be verified: that is, argued from evidence. The process began with the Fleishman-Pons finding (unexplained excess heat, by products of nuclear fusion), along with their supporting evidence. The argument proceeded as Fleishman and Pons' peers examined the claim and its supporting evidence. Was its theoretical foundation reasonable? Was the claim consistent with other known facts? if we follow their procedures will we get the same results?
Over the next few weeks and months many scientists attempted to replicate the phenomena and findings claimed by Fleishman and Pons.
At first there were a number of reported successful replications but then there were a growing number of negative ones and the withdrawal of the early positive ones. By the end of 1989, most scientists accepted the fact that the phenomenon reported was an illusion. (Macrae, 2018)
An argument is a process in which questions are posed: what is the claim? What is the evidence that supports the claim? What evidence does not support the claim? Are there other ways to explain the finding? How does the finding fit with what is known about related phenomena? Can other investigators reproduce the study, experiment, observation, and get the same outcome?
An ordinary argument is a clash between individuals that is often fraught with emotion, logic and evidence optional, ending with both disputants often declaring victory and still clinging to the position they began with.
Scientific argument from evidence is a much different thing. The goal is not to win by defeating a foe but "...to refine and build consensus for scientific ideas, based on evidence, to come as close as possible to understanding the reality of the natural world." (ENSI, 2018)
ENSI (2018). Scientific Argumentation.
Feynman, Richard P. (1974). Cargo Cult Science: Some remarks on science, pseudoscience, and learning how to not fool yourself. Caltech’s 1974 commencement address.
MacRae, Michael (2018). Cold Fusion Twenty-Five Years Later.
Osborne, Jonathan (2018). Teach Science Through Argument. Stanford Graduate School of Education.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.
S²TEM Centers SC is an innovation partnership managed by South Carolina’s Coalition for Mathematics & Science at Clemson University. Its purpose is to serve South Carolina by growing the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) possibilities and capabilities of learners and leaders.
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