Biology: The Science of Our Lives
Biology literally means "the study of life". Biology is such a broad field, covering the minute workings of chemical machines inside our cells, to broad scale concepts of ecosystems and global climate change. Biologists study intimate details of the human brain, the composition of our genes, and even the functioning of our reproductive system. Biologists recently all but completed the deciphering of the human genome, the sequence of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) bases that may determine much of our innate capabilities and predispositions to certain forms of behavior and illnesses. DNA sequences have played major roles in criminal cases (O.J. Simpson, as well as the reversal of death penalties for many wrongfully convicted individuals), as well as the impeachment of President Clinton (the stain at least did not lie). We are bombarded with headlines about possible health risks from favorite foods (Chinese, Mexican, hamburgers, etc.) as well as the potential benefits of eating other foods such as cooked tomatoes. Informercials tout the benefits of metabolism-adjusting drugs for weight loss. Many Americans are turning to herbal remedies to ease arthritis pain, improve memory, as well as improve our moods. Can a biology book give you the answers to these questions? No, but it will enable you learn how to sift through the biases of investigators, the press, and others in a quest to critically evaluate the question. To be honest, five years after you are through with this class it is doubtful you would remember all the details of meatbolism. However, you will know where to look and maybe a little about the process of science that will allow you to make an informed decision. Will you be a scientist? Yes, in a way. You may not be formally trained as a science major, but you can think critically, solve problems, and have some idea about what science can and cannoit do. I hope you will be able to tell the shoe from the shinola.
The Scientific Process
Scientists make progress by using the scientific method, a process of checking conclusions against nature. After observing something, a scientist tries to explain what has been seen. The explanation is called a hypothesis. There is always at least one alternative hypothesis. A part of nature is tested in a "controlled experiment" to see if the explanation matches reality. A controlled experiment is one in which all treatments are identical except that some are exposed to the hypothetical cause and some are not. Any differences in the way the treatments behave is attributed to the presence and lack of the cause. If the results of the experiment are consistent with the hypothesis, there is evidence to support the hypothesis. If the two do not match, the scientist seeks an alternative explanation and redesigns the experiment. When enough evidence accumulates, the understanding of this natural phenomenon is considered a scientific theory. A scientific theory persists until additional evidence causes it to be revised.Nature's reality is always the final judge of a scientific theory. Science is an objective, logical, and repeatable attempt to understand the principles and forces operating in the natural universe. Science is from the Latin word, scientia, to know. Good science is not dogmatic, but should be viewed as an ongoing process of testing and evaluation. One of the hoped-for benefits of students taking a biology course is that they will become more familiar with the process of science. Humans seem innately interested in the world we live in. Young children drive their parents batty with constant "why" questions. Science is a means to get some of those whys answered. When we shop for groceries, we are conducting a kind of scientific experiment. If you like Brand X of soup, and Brand Y is on sale, perhaps you try Brand Y. If you like it you may buy it again, even when it is not on sale. If you did not like Brand Y, then no sale will get you to try...
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