Science Is Not Exact

I once thought that I liked science because it was so exact. There were rules, and everything turned out exactly the way you expected it to. There is only one problem–it does not. On paper, you can predict exactly what product will form, and maybe even predict our percent yield? (We speak of chemistry here.) In other words, the conventional view of science is that it can quantify everything–and if it cannot, well, then at least it can quantify the exceptions. That is a problem. Science is not exact.

My first experience in a freshman chemistry lab was somewhat harrowing. Do not misunderstand me (or my self-contradictory double-negative construction)–I loved every minute, but I learned a lot about scientific error that I had not learned in our makeshift homeschool laboratory (the kitchen) where I attributed all my errors to things sticking to the pans. The first things I learned in the lab were what a Bunsen burner and hot plate looked like, much to the amusement of my lab partner, but I also learned several other things that the general public could benefit from knowing.

  1. We do not understand chemistry. I was aghast to discover that most of what we know about chemistry was discovered in the 20th century. Before then, it was just carefully experimenting with elements–which may or may not have been pure–in order to classify them by what happened when they reacted with other elements. I have some of my grandfather’s old chemistry textbooks © 1921, 1940, and 1946, and they are primarily descriptive chemistry. What is sulfuric acid? How does it react? How can you make it? They lack the why. Today we know a little bit more, but we are still fumbling to figure things out. I have only just begun organic chemistry–which is rumored to have a lot of memorization of reactions. (Indeed, my father concentrated on chemical mechanisms so he could focus on the why rather than the memorization.) Even so, it seems that in organic chemistry, we are still trying to figure things out. We have classified different kinds of organic compounds and know in general how they react, but the why does not seem widely known.
  2. We have invented several aids to help us, such as the scientific method, but science will never be exact as long as humans (and pieces of equipment) are fallible. The main problem a lot of us have with evolution, and, to a certain degree, global warming is the amount of subjectivity involved. You did an experiment, but did you make an error and does the experiment prove your hypothesis? The temperature of the earth is rising, but is this due to the natural heating and cooling cycles, the placement of your sensors, or even what you want to believe? In the end, it comes down to what the researcher is willing to believe. I routinely researched and wrote my lab reports with the “right” answer in mind (listing the myriad of experimental errors, of course). In addition, science comes down to observation, and thus to the observer. My lab partner would not record deviations from the standard 1 mL release in a titration because he said it was “experimental error.” My partner and I also routinely disagreed on whether the solution was yellow or orange. The scientific method is useful, of course, but as long as the human mind is not a computer, subjective differences will exist.
  3. Sometimes Things Happen. We all remember times where, for some reason, the cookies came out of the oven looking like a smoking heap that had barely escaped the fires of Mordor. We remember times when, despite all our planning, trips just did not work out. Science is like that too sometimes, often because of our own ignorance. I remember my room mate coming home one night and telling me that neither she nor her professor had any idea what their experiment had produced. Whatever it was, it was not what they expected. However, this does not have to be a bad thing. Sometimes it is an opportunity to discover new things. Fleming discovered penicillin this way. My roommate told me another night that by accidentally spilling water into their experiment, they had sped it up and increased the yield. Their only problem was duplicating the results.
  4. Finally, there are always exceptions to the rule, plain and simple. These are not due to human ignorance, error, or the mysterious forces of Things Happening, but because there just are. One thing I have not meant to do in this post is to imply that there are not exact rules in science or that exact truth does not exist. It does, just as it does in every subject and in life, (You may debate that with me in the comments.) but the absolute truth does not have blanket rules, that is all. There is a new rule for each exception. Or  perhaps we do not understand the science well enough to write good rules yet.

Thus, science is not exact, at least not off-paper. I compared science to math before I came to college, but it is not like math; science is more like a cross between math and golf. You can calculate a stroke with mathematical precision to fall into a hole, but the golfer does not necessarily hit it into the hole, although he may come very close. And the more strokes he takes to get to the hole, the more imprecise the experiment gets, or something like that. I do not know anything about golf.

This discussion raises a new question. If science is not exact, and I liked it because I thought it was, then why do I like science now? I suppose I like it because it is a search–a search for truth, an effort to classify what we know, and a study built around discovering new things and helping people. That is why I like science, though my humanity and my lab partner may sometimes annoy me.

Agree? Disagree? Did I miss any other reasons that science isn’t exact? Send me a comment!

Many thanks to jefftaras for making his photo available at stock.xchng. (http://www.sxc.hu/pic/m/j/je/jefftaras/445412_lab_stirrers.jpg)

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