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1.1.1: Science

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    Science is a specific way of looking at the universe.

    science : empiricism :: religion : faith

    Anthropology is mostly based on science. Anthropology is holistic. The four main subfields of anthropology are cultural anthropology, physical (biological) anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. It is worthwhile to back up and introduce both science and anthropology. And before talking about science, we should back up even farther, and talk about epistemology, the study of how we know things.

    The word science comes from the Latin for “knowledge”, but in modern English it means a very specific kind of knowledge, and implies a method of obtaining knowledge.

    Scientific Method


    Another good summary of the scientific method

    Here are a few terms to clarify: law vs. theory, quantitative vs. qualitative, inductive vs. deductive

    A scientific "Law" is just an archaic term for an accepted theory; we could talk about Newton and his theory of gravity, or Darwin and the Law of Evolution, and what we mean is that neither hypothesis has been disproven yet.

    Anthropology uses both quantitative (statistics) and qualitative (detailed description) methods, but leans towards qualitative research.

    Other good terms to understand are induction and deduction. Induction is where you take what you can observe and make generalizations, like hypotheses and theories. Deduction is where you start with the general laws of the universe and you use them to predict how a specific event will play out. Both are important aspects of science: the ability to make generalizations, and the ability to predict future events. For example, Sherlock Holmes kept a notebook of all his previous cases, and from this he made inductive generalizations about human nature. When a client came to see him, he would deductively apply his criminal theories to solving the specific case.

    Quantitative versus qualitative is another pair to distinguish, and have to do with what kind of data you use. Quantitative science is based on a large quantity of objects, qualitative science is based on intensive scrutiny of a small number of objects. For example, sociology tends to use quantitative methods – studying humans by asking many people a few questions; while anthropology tends to use qualitative methods – studying humans by asking a few people many questions.

    All this terminology is relatively new in human history, but the foundation of science, empiricism, is ancient. I don't want to back up too far into philosophy, so let me just say that science is based on what you can experience. Scientists use what you can see for yourself with your own two eyes (or some extension of your eyes, like an electron scanning microscope). If a scientist makes an argument that a fossil belongs to an ancestor of Homo sapiens, they need to point out the same details that led them to that conclusion, and as scientists they are required to explain their ideas in a way that anyone else could see the same thing they are seeing and come to same conclusions. This is also an example of how science is "reproducible". Scientists don't get so excited about the first person to discover cold fusion, what makes it science is the second person to verify the results, or better said, fails to disprove the original hypothesis. Science is about disproving hypotheses. Science can say you´re wrong, but it can´t say you´re right. The goal of science is not about establishing Truth, and for that reason it is often not as satisfying as other branches of knowledge such as religion or art that can claim Truth with a capital "T". Try not to get too frustrated with statements that hedge their conclusions, or just admit that we just don´t know yet: this is a characteristic of good science.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Read Deduction vs. Induction

    How to Critically Review Scientific Articles

    Scientific writing can be pretty dry. If you're chatting about a movie, probably the first thing you say is whether you liked it or not, and you'll build up an emotional story without any spoilers.

    You need to shift gears for science. This may be disturbing to your self-esteem, but busy scientists usually don't care about how a scientific article makes you feel or whether you liked it or not. They want to know how much the data supports or disproves the hypotheses they are working with. They don't need spoiler alerts, they want as much spoiling as possible. There are more scientific articles than minutes in a human life, so scientists need the conclusion in the first paragraph, so they can decide whether to keep reading or not. The process of doing science entails communicating several necessary components. With good scientific articles you should be able to easily find all of the following elements:

    The Citation

    A citation is how the article you are reviewing would look in a long list of references, works cited, or in a bibliography. It functions as a link between how you use the ideas in the article, and how the reader can get ahold of the article and read it themselves. It's important to stay anal-retentive about the format of a citation, so people can find the article. MLA and APA are popular formats, but much of anthropology uses the Chicago Style.

    The citation functions as the title of your review and goes on top, like the format of an annotated bibliography.

    This is the main difference between an essay and a critical review. An essay has a topic and a title, a critical review (or an annotated bibliography) just has a source, and then your thoughts about it below. So what goes below the citation? read on...

    The Introduction to Your Review

    Even though this is the order of elements in the final version, as you're working on your review, you want to skip ahead and come back here after the Conclusion.

    Cover all the following sections and then summarize them into a single paragraph, like the annotation in a typical annotated bibliography, or an abstract that summarizes a longer work. If you organize your review with a paragraph for each section, and each paragraph begins with a topic sentence, then you can pretty much just copy the topic sentences word-for-word and you're done with the Introduction.

    Because the introduction is basically a summary of your critical review, you need to do the critical review first, before the introduction.

    Why all this jumping around between the article, introduction, and the rest of the critical review?

    Your job as the writer is to make it easy for the reader to find the information they need as quickly as possible, and decide if they need to keep reading.

    The Hypothesis

    Don't waste time! Go straight to the core of the article. What is the author trying to prove? Hypotheses come from “Problems” and “Research Questions” but they are reworded as answers. The hypothesis shouldn't end in a question mark – it's the answer, stated as a concise declarative sentence that is either descriptive ("This is that.") or causal ("This causes that."). The question you and the scientists want to answer is how well was the hypothesis supported or disproved.

    A Background

    Now that you've stated the hypothesis, you can back-up and put it in context. Why is it important? How does the hypothesis connect to other research? For this class you want to refer to the other articles in the same section and explain how this research fits into those broader topics. Why did Arnie put this article in this section? What other sections might it fit into? What does this article have to do with physical anthropology?

    This is sometimes called the “Problem” or “Research Question”. In a larger scientific write-up you might make this section into a “Literature Review”, which is a summary of everything that has been written about the subject before your contribution.

    The Methods

    Now that you've given the essential hypothesis, and given its background, you can add more details about the article itself. What did the scientist do? What techniques or technology were used? How did they look at something? What empirical senses were involved? This is very different from what the scientist thinks–which you find in the hypothesis or the conclusion.

    Some Data

    If methods are how the scientists looked at something, then data are what they saw. What did they see? feel? hear? touch? sense? What senses they used are methods, how their senses responded are data. Data are often reported as “Findings” or “Results”.

    Scientists are obligated to make their data public so that other scientists can attempt to reproduce their conclusions. An article is already summarizing the data, and a review of an article should summarize it even more. In the humanities and social sciences, hypotheses are rarely completely falsified or overwhelmingly supported, how “true” a hypothesis is, depends on the quality and quantity of the data that supports it.

    You want to give enough details to connect the hypothesis to the conclusion.

    The Conclusion

    The conclusion has two parts: yours and the author's. You want to present the conclusions that the article came to, and you want to wrap your review up, summarizing what you've done so far. In the conclusion, the scientists let us know what they think. How well did the data support the hypothesis? Was the hypothesis testable? Was it reliable (usually a review of the methods)? Was it valid (usually a critique of the background)? Was it verifiable; would it be possible for someone to repeat the same process? How did the sources cited or the “Literature Review” connect to the data? What further research do the scientists suggest?

    In a critical review, you want to present how the scientists answered these questions. As a critical review, you also want to answer these questions yourself, evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the article. If this were a peer review you would be a peer of the author, a colleague, you would have the same background knowledge as the author, and be more likely to thoroughly understand the article and be able to evaluate it. But, you're taking an introductory class, you're not an expert yet, so try not to get cocky and feel like you are supposed to attack the author.

    Science thrives on criticism. The goal of a peer review is to help the author fix their mistakes and get better.


    Here's a great video of Austin's Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work, that reflects the ideal way the scientific community comes to consensus.

    Austin's Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work from EL Education on Vimeo.

    Now that you're done with the body of your review, go back and write a short introduction to YOUR work in the form of an abstract or annotated bibliography.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) - (CC BY-NC 2.5)

    • a good source for critically evaluating articles
    • Twenty tips for interpreting scientific claims
    • Science can't prove anything: how scientists define theory, proof, uncertainty
    • The Research Methods Knowledge Base provides a good introduction to these concepts and terms


    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) - 2014 (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


    I introduced this section by discussing epistemology, the theory of knowledge. Science is one kind of knowledge, faith is another kind of knowledge. What you know can come from what you experience with your own empirical senses, or you can believe something that someone told you. Faith is complex and varies from person to person, but a concise definition can be found on the popular bumper sticker that reads: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”


    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\) - Circular Reasoning (CC BY-NC 4.0)

    Radical fundamentalist Christianity in the US makes what should be a parlour room discussion between science and religion into a political debate with real educational consequences for all us. Scientists struggle to understand the complex mechanisms of evolutionary theory, but for many, the struggle is made more difficult by ideological barriers set up by faith-based opposition to science.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\) - Jesus Camp. good 2006 documentary on radical fundamentalism


    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\) - Big Think

    We need to stress evolutionary theory because it is a fundamental explanatory device in biology. There is a famous quote by geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky where he states “nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution.” Trying to make sense of biological systems, including human beings, without evolution is like trying to understand physics while claiming that the force of gravity doesn't exist. There are very few belief systems in the world that deny evolution, and it is totally compatible with most religions around the world, even the Pope has come out supporting evolution (* 2014), so you have no conflict if you are a Catholic. But unfortunately, we happen to live in a culture that prefers faith over science. Our technology has changed rapidly in the last couple of millennia but our mindset has not quite kept up. Many fierce battles are fought today in school boards around the country over the separation of church and state, and whether faith-based ideas (Creationism/Intelligent Design) should be taught in public schools. The battles have spilled out onto the streets with people declaring their beliefs with little symbols on the backs of their cars.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\) - Al Seckel, John Edwards 1983

    Personally, I wish I didn't have to dwell on the issue so much, I have friends who are Creationists and we get along fine. But, in my role as professor of physical anthropology, I cannot accept Creationism or Intelligent Design as anything more than dangerous fallacies that interfere with students' ability to learn the required curriculum. For me to teach "both sides" would be a form of repressive tolerance (Marcuse 1965). I'm not leading any crusades to banish Medieval thinking from society, but I get worked-up about the issue. It's like professional frustration ­– that I've failed at my job as an educator – when I see people who are proud of their ignorance. They act like being stupid is somehow cool or something. It reminds me of how Cornel West describes the problem of nihilism in society today.

    It bothers me too how religion is used reinforce socioeconomic class. Many of you are smart enough to transfer to Harvard with a scholarship and get six-figure jobs in the budding genetics industry in major cities around the globe, but if during your job interview, you start spouting Intelligent Design ideology, your scientific credentials go down the drain, and you're back to flipping burgers at In-and-Out.

    So, if you think Creationism/Intelligent Design is a load of crap, fine, so do 99.9% of the scientists in the world. But, if you are Christian, you don't have to abandon your faith for this class. I would get in trouble if half the class reasoned, "Well since my teacher has proven that a few poetic lines written thousands of years ago can't be interpreted literally, now I should do the exact opposite of all the moral precepts in the Bible, and become a Satanic mass-murdering tweeker." There are millions and millions of scientists who believe in Christ and evolution and find no contradiction between the two. If that doesn't console you, maybe it'll help to think of this class as an exercise in "know thyne enemy". You don't have to sign a "God is dead!" pledge, and you don't even have to actually believe in evolution to pass this class, you just have to understand it well enough to be able to regurgitate a few of the things I want to hear. But, be forewarned, I'm not a minion of the Devil; it's in my job description to test your faith and proselytize the wisdom of evolutionary theory.

    There are very, very few people who actually take The Bible literally. Almost everyone interprets the meaning of the words in The Bible relative to their own language, historical milieu, and personal circumstances. Biblical scholars use the word hermeneutics to talk about the different ways that passages in The Bible can be interpreted. For example, there are several passages in the King James' version that says it's harder for a rich man to get to heaven than a camel to go through the eye of a needle. Some Biblical scholars think that the passage was poorly translated from the Aramaic to the Greek, and the mistake continued to Latin, and then English. They have found similar sayings from around that historical period that refer to the difficulty of threading a needle with a camel hair, or thread or rope made of camel hair, because camel hairs are so thick. Another interpretation is that Jerusalem had a small gate, called the Camel Gate, that was difficult to pass through if you were rich and carrying all your stuff. For me the metaphors of a camel hair through a needle or a rich guy with gear squeezing through a small door make a lot more sense than this image of an actual camel floating through some giant needle. Stuff gets lost in translation. Have you ever played that game, "telephone", where you get a big circle with your friends and one person makes up a complicated sentence and whispers in the ear of the person next to them, who whispers it in the ear of the person next to them, and as the message gets passed around the circle, people miss-hear things, or forget things, and the message changes. And, when you compare the original message to how it ended up, it often sounds silly.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\) - Flammarion engraving 1888, notice the pillars that hold up the heavens

    Some of the few people who take the Bible literally have been ridiculed into the closet. The Flat Earth Society took literally a passage from The Bible that said the heavens are held up by four pillars at the corners of the earth, and the image of the sun "rising" literally. They actually believed that if you walked far enough to some corner of the earth you would bump into a big pillar. Nowadays, it's hard to find an honest proponent of the Flat Earth theory, but they were around by the 1950s. Now, everyone just laughs at them, like you would probably laugh at someone one who claims the sun revolves around the earth. But on February 17, 1600, this was no laughing matter, when in the Campo di Fiore, Rome, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for advocating the heretical belief proposed by Copernicus known as heliocentrism.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\) - Statue of Giordano Bruno, Campo di Fiore, Rome, Italy (CC BY-NC 4.0)


    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\) -

    I'm glad that we're at a point in history where I don't have to worry about being burned at the stake for teaching the theory of evolution, and I'm glad that we're at a point where we can just poke fun at Creationists through Darwin fish on our cars, or spoofs such as The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. But I don't think the battle is over. Obama undid many of attacks on science that characterized the Bush administration, but the Trump administration promises a radical attack on science, and an era of "alternate facts". We'll see...


    • A TED talk video of how science can help cure cancer
    • A primer on logic and arguments


    • literature review
    • abstract
    • research question
    • epistemology
    • anthropology
    • archaeology
    • biological anthropology
    • Creationism
    • deduction
    • empiricism
    • faith
    • hermeneutics
    • hypothesis
    • induction
    • Intelligent Design
    • laws
    • linguistics
    • physical anthropology
    • qualitative
    • quantitative
    • science
    • taxonomy
    • theory

    Imagination Questions

    • What would happen to science if radical Christian fundamentalists organized a military coup and took control of education in the US?
    • What if artificial intelligence advances to the point where robots can do their own science?
    • How strong is your belief in science or faith? If you are religious and someone convinced you your religion was wrong, would you give it up? If you believe in science, and you saw God, would you give up your scientific beliefs?

    This page titled 1.1.1: Science is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Arnie Daniel Schoenberg via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.