This is a course based on science, but this discussion is not meant to imply that science is more important than other human endeavors. In terms of understanding the physical world, science appears to be without equal, but scientific knowledge is not the only valuable kind of knowledge, and scientific thinking is not the only valid intellectual endeavor. Examples of other kinds of valuable knowledge lie in the arts, humanities, and religion. Scientific endeavors more resemble the actions of explorers than of creative artists. The products of scientific knowledge also differ in character from products of other endeavors. The real world of material, energy and time awaits discovery, but ultimately does not depend upon any scientist for its existence. Radium has existed since the formation of the universe. If Marie Curie had not discovered radium, someone else eventually would have done so. In contrast if Samuel Clemens had not written Tom Sawyer, or Vincent van Gogh had not painted Starry Night, the book or the painting would not exist. Documents such as codes of ethics, constitutions of government, and laws we live by are not the products of testable knowledge about the physical world. Yet no one would dispute the value of such works.
Technology and science are often understandably confused, because they both deal with the physical world. Technology is concerned with the production of tangible items such as a fire, a bridge, or a steam engine. Pure science is concerned with the production of knowledge about the real world. An impressive degree of technology can exist without the aid of science. In fact, science did little to aid technology until the nineteenth century (Wolpert, 1992, p. 28), and although the foundations of science began in Greece, that culture was equaled or surpassed in technology by other cultures. Examples of technological triumphs include art, cooking, metalworking, irrigation systems, mining, architecture and creation of celestial maps and calendars. Technology relies on a long history of accumulated observations for success, but the experience is used only to achieve an immediate end. The observations are not accumulated as a larger, systematic body of interrelated knowledge and are not used to seek explanations about the nature of what is really being observed or how something behaves in a certain way.
A cookbook is an example of a technological resource; recipes are based on experience and not upon theories about why something should taste good. There is no need to think analytically in order to bake a pie; if one follows the directions correctly, the desired pie will result. In contrast, a textbook on nutrition requires a scientific basis to explain the relationships between food and health. The latter book presents knowledge that is difficult to achieve through mere trial and error experience.
If one begins to know why a particular result occurs, one has a powerful basis that gives the advantage of vision and direction brought by expanding knowledge that can be organized into theories and laws. This frees one from mere dependence upon blind trials. For instance, if a critical nutrient were deficient in a diet, the technological approach, like the scientific approach, would rely on recording the effects of a variety of foods on the symptoms. Once one was found that produced a cure, the technological investigation would be over, and from then on, when recognizable symptoms of dietary deficiency occurred, that food would be sought and given. Effective folk medicines have often been the product of technological advance brought from long, cumulative experience. On the other hand, the scientific approach would go further. Scientists would analyze the food that produced the cure to discover the material in the food that was responsible. They would investigate whether the material was present because of the food itself or whether it resulted from the type of soil on which it was grown. They would systematically seek to find out how a deficiency produced particular symptoms, and might even try to synthesize the material itself as a dietary supplement. Knowledge about the nutrient would grow at an explosive rate, as many individuals contributed to the investigation. There would likely never come a point at which every question that could be asked about the nutrient would be answered.
It may be that the current "knowledge explosion" results from a change from humans thinking technologically to a significant number of humans thinking scientifically. Without recognizing a punctuated, revolutionary shift in thinking, it is difficult to explain why the knowledge explosion we now see did not actually occur centuries earlier in human history.
Environmental and geological science are complex issues, easily as complex as the fields of electronics or the chemistry of plasticsrecent fields that now must rely on science rather than technology for advancement. In order to deal successfully with broader environmental issues, we probably cannot rely upon mere technological approaches, but instead we must employ scientific ways of thinking.
Modeling is also a scientific approach used to obtain knowledge. Models are simplified depictions of physical reality. They can be physical or mathematical. Serious models result from a combination of technology and both scientific methods. A road map is a simple model of the actual highway system. It neither presents the views along the road nor any information about the kinds of experiences one might have from following a given route, but it does serve the specific purpose of helping to arrive at a destination from a point of departure and to estimate the time required for a trip between these two points. Field investigation, such as data furnished by aerial photographs, and technology needed to print and distribute the maps are both needed to produce even this simple model.
A more complex kind of model might be required to answer a question about how large a population can be served from an underground water supply. This is a common and serious question today. In order to answer that question, we need to know things like how fast water is pumped from wells during consumption, what the average person's consumption is expected to be, how fast water flows to the wells through the rock and soil that the wells are tapping, and how the volume of water in the underground reservoir is replenished through rainfall or seepage from surface streams. Laboratory studies can tell us how water moves through well bores and pipes, and how it moves through rock, and we can devise the equations needed to express fluid movements from the laboratory. Field studies can supply the information about how large the reservoir is, how it is replenished and what average consumption of residents now using it happens to be. Because we are looking for quantitative information, a mathematical model derived from both laboratory and field studies that allows "What if?" questions to be asked will be most useful to provide answers. We can ask: "What if a drought occurs and the amount of rainfall drops to X inches;" or "What if we increase the population by 10% served by this water supply and drill 10 % more wells?" The advantage of a model lies in its predictive value. If we have built our model well on good laboratory data and thorough field investigations, then we don't actually have to wait for a drought or to build 10% more houses to discover the answers to these questions. Instead we can put the numerical data for supply and/or consumption into the computational model and arrive at a reasonable idea of what will happen.
For some examples of applied modelling, click here.