Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

1.2: Scientific Knowledge

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    The purpose of science is to create scientific knowledge. Scientific knowledge refers to a generalized body of laws and theories to explain a phenomenon or behavior of interest that are acquired using the scientific method. Laws are observed patterns of phenomena or behaviors, while theories are systematic explanations of the underlying phenomenon or behavior. For instance, in physics, the Newtonian Laws of Motion describe what happens when an object is in a state of rest or motion (Newton’s First Law), what force is needed to move a stationary object or stop a moving object (Newton’s Second Law), and what happens when two objects collide (Newton’s Third Law). Collectively, the three laws constitute the basis of classical mechanics – a theory of moving objects. Likewise, the theory of optics explains the properties of light and how it behaves in different media, electromagnetic theory explains the properties of electricity and how to generate it, quantum mechanics explains the properties of subatomic particles, and thermodynamics explains the properties of energy and mechanical work. An introductory college level text book in physics will likely contain separate chapters devoted to each of these theories. Similar theories are also available in social sciences. For instance, cognitive dissonance theory in psychology explains how people react when their observations of an event is different from what they expected of that event, general deterrence theory explains why some people engage in improper or criminal behaviors, such as illegally download music or commit software piracy, and the theory of planned behavior explains how people make conscious reasoned choices in their everyday lives.

    The goal of scientific research is to discover laws and postulate theories that can explain natural or social phenomena, or in other words, build scientific knowledge. It is important to understand that this knowledge may be imperfect or even quite far from the truth. Sometimes, there may not be a single universal truth, but rather an equilibrium of “multiple truths.” We must understand that the theories, upon which scientific knowledge is based, are only explanations of a particular phenomenon, as suggested by a scientist. As such, there may be good or poor explanations, depending on the extent to which those explanations fit well with reality, and consequently, there may be good or poor theories. The progress of science is marked by our progression over time from poorer theories to better theories, through better observations using more accurate instruments and more informed logical reasoning.

    We arrive at scientific laws or theories through a process of logic and evidence. Logic (theory) and evidence (observations) are the two, and only two, pillars upon which scientific knowledge is based. In science, theories and observations are interrelated and cannot exist without each other. Theories provide meaning and significance to what we observe, and observations help validate or refine existing theory or construct new theory. Any other means of knowledge acquisition, such as faith or authority cannot be considered science.

    This page titled 1.2: Scientific Knowledge is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Anol Bhattacherjee (Global Text Project) .

    • Was this article helpful?