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.Information Literacy in the Sciences

Science, the scientific method, and science literature

Science, the scientific method, and science literature


Library Services for Science Students

Feynman: What is Science?

What is Science?

Richard Feynman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965, aptly summarized the scientific method in simple language during his seven lectures of the Messenger Lectures given at Cornell University in 1964. (See video and transcript below.)

In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. (Don't laugh. That's the truth.) Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what--if this is right, if this law that we guessed is right--to see what it would imply. And then we compare those computation results to nature--or we say compare to experiment or experience--compare it directly with observation to see if it works. 

If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong.

In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. That's all there is to it.”

Feynmen's Messenger Lectures.  This video excerpt is from Lecture 7: Seeking New Laws > Chapter 6: How to Look for New Laws. (16:47-18:33) 

Feynman, Cornell 1964, “The Character of Physical Law”, Messenger Lectures, grabadas BBC 

Richard P. Feynman, Nobel Prize in Physics 1965

Science Literature

The literature and resources of the science disciplines are heavily structured around the  scientific method, which is basically a process based on experimentation and observation that is followed to determine what is true.

The examination of existing theories and the evaluation of their supporting evidence is very important in the development of new questions to ask and new experiments to perform. Experimentation is research.

Scientific research is shared with other scientists and scientific stakeholders primarily via publications. The publication of research helps distribute ideas and theories to other scientists all around the world. The distribution encourages discussion of the ideas therein. The discussion generates new ideas for further research and consideration. The entire process adds to our knowledge of the world.

Therefore, the publications of original research are very important. Subsequently, the publications in which the discussions of the original research take place are also important.

Scientists refer to experimentation as research. But one can also talk about "research" when one is searching and reading the published information about what people know. Scientific research and library research are both "research" because they are both methods to find out information about what people know. The definition of "research."

Feynman on Why Do Science

Feynman on Why Do Science (video 3:23)

"If they can't understand what's already been uncovered, they can't appreciate the search." ---Richard Feynman

Information Literacy and "Guesses"

To formulate a theory or a "guess" about the world, it helps to know what is known about the phenomenon. You can do this by observation but you can also find out what others observed or theorized about it. You can do this by finding out what they wrote or said about it. 

The hard sciences--chemistry, physics, geology, etc.--allow scientists to conduct very controlled experiments. Variables can often be very carefully controlled in order to determine their impact on the outcome.

In the softer sciences that deal with living things and also in the real world, scientists sometimes cannot always control every variable, due to ethical, financial, practical or other reasons. Science students must learn what limitations may occur when conducting experiments and how to deal with any uncertainty this may produce in the results.  

This skill will also help student scientists evaluate the research they find in the science literature.

What Science is Not

Experts on a topic sometimes find it hard to remember what it was like to not know their topic. And scientists may underestimate what nonscientists don't know about science. Because these nonscientists may go on to become politicians or other professionals who can have an influence on science, what people don't know about science matters. 

The ISU science librarian had a discussion with a non-science educator in which it became clear that this educator thought that science was a matter of learning facts about the world. Memorizing facts may be how many students are first taught science in elementary school. After all, one must learn a bit about the world in order to ask questions about those "facts." However, as stated earlier, science is all about the scientific method, not just about memorizing facts. Therefore, science literature cannot be treated as a bunch of facts but must be critically evaluated, questioned, and considered. In fact, the science literature can be viewed as a worldwide conversation amongst international scientists about the world as they help each other by posing questions, presenting alternative theories, and challenging each other to do even better scientific research. Science students should begin to think of themselves as joining an ongoing professional conversation.

For more information...

  • Feynman, R. (1963). The Problem of Teaching Physics in Latin America. Engineering and Science27 (2). pp. 21-30. Feynman discusses why memorization is insufficient in learning science by relating an anecdote of teaching as a guest lecturer.
  • Burkhardt, J. M. (2016). Scholarship as conversation. In Teaching information literacy reframed : 50+ framework-based exercises for creating information-literate learners (pp. 11-16). Chicago: Neal-Schuman.

SUGGESTED EXERCISE: Burkhardt, J. M. (2016). Exercise 3: Identifying most important or most cited information. In Teaching information literacy reframed : 50+ framework-based exercises for creating information-literate learners (pp. 20-21). Chicago: ALA Neal-Schuman.

Okay. So what do you need to know about scientific research in order to successfully make use of it? And how would you find it when you want it? That will be covered in subsequent modules.