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Think critically about new information, past assumptions, and your own thought process

This is an excerpt from Principles of Sustainable Living With Web Resource by Richard Jurin.

Changing Your Thinking

Most modern environmental issues are frequently driven and fueled by emotional rhetoric. Environmental science and the integration of sustainability principles is based on science and is rational, yet relies on a transdisciplinary base since it involves natural sciences, social sciences, humanities, and arts to comprehend the big picture. Environmentalism and sustainability are very different. Environmental activism protects nature and people from the ravages of the human economy while sustainability works to redesign the economy itself.

The Nature of Scientific Thinking

Science is a process of asking questions about the universe and searching for answers through rational means. You can disprove a line of thinking, but you can never actually prove anything; you merely collect evidence based on other lines of similar thinking that your ideas hold true under certain parameters. As ideas become more flushed out, you gain more confidence that your conclusions are true within the parameters that you set. If you do this in a transparent environment where everyone can view and question your thinking, a discussion can ensue that allows a broader group of thinkers to agree or debate the validity of any information. Such is the process of science.

  • Science research is logical and objective in order to validate the procedures employed, the data collected, and any conclusions reached. Personal feelings, conviction, and bias are considered and then eliminated in order to suppress bias and emotion in the analysis. No attempt is made to persuade or to prove an emotionally held conviction without valid data to confirm its potential
  • Scientists weigh the evidence, test or explore ideas, and explain observations in a rational manner.
  • Scientists use the scientific method where appropriate (figure 1.1).
  • Once data are found and analyzed, scientists write up their results and openly publish the findings. Then they participate in open discourse, revise their ideas or hypotheses, and practice theory building to explain phenomena.
  • Peer review ensures that all findings are open for scrutiny and reevaluation by all people—usually scientists in the same field, but sometimes in general journals and other science publications. Good information passes through the knowledge filter while less valid or unreliable information is filtered out.
  • Data found in experiments and scientific studies can only disprove hypotheses and predictions, yet can offer evidence that builds on theory formation (repeated and rigorous testing by many different research teams in many different ways to create a comprehensive and widely accepted explanation of one or more cause-effect observations). Therefore, there is no such thing as scientific proof, only best evidence that supports a scientific theory or a set of conclusions to support the development of a scientific theory.
  • Research sometimes requires courage of conviction to pursue conclusions that may be unpopular and may bring social disapproval. Copernicus (1473-1543) was condemned by church authorities when he announced his conclusion concerning the nature of the solar system: His theory that the sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system was in direct conflict with prevailing religious dogma. Despite hundreds of years of scientific advancement, people are still prone to look at many systems in a dogmatic way, especially when it contradicts what they would like to believe.

Thinking Critically About Scientific Information

While scientists strive to be as unbiased as possible, one must never forget that they are human and subject to all the foibles of humanity. A scientist may experience many levels of pressure to either conform to peer and social expectations (e.g., if a scientist's compensation depends on finding results), or to push ideas they are convinced are correct despite little validated evidence to the contrary. Recognizing that scientists are human, it is pertinent to the educated layperson that sometimes all results should be questioned from a critical perspective to sift the valid results from the not-so-valid ones and to understand how the data may have been influenced by outside agencies with a vested interest in finding desired outcomes or ignoring specific findings.When you come across scientific evidence, think about it critically by asking these

  • Who is the source of the information?
  • Are the alleged facts placed in a context of accepted knowledge?
  • Does the argument make sense?
  • How was the information obtained?

  • What kind of study was reported or used?
    • Correlational research—Res
    • earch where a logical connection is made between variables and extensive exploration or testing reveal patterns or trends of change. It is also called cause-inference research.
    • Experimental research—Research in which all variables are controlled during a treatment so that any changes can be attributed to a specific variable that has been manipulated. It is also called cause-effect research.
  • Were measurements and statistics used properly?
  • Did you examine the big picture and avoid simplistic (i.e., not recognizing complexity in systems) and dualistic (i.e., thinking that everything is either one or the other, right or wrong) thinking?

These questions emphasize that when you understand how scientists work, you can determine the level of reliability of information derived from the scientific process. You do not need to either totally accept or deny what a scientist has found. Rather, you should remain mildly skeptical and understand the findings in context of the bigger picture in which the findings are couched. A scientist claims not proof, but rather evidence, in support of an idea or scientific theory. Scientists do not simply guess; they use educated analyses and either inductive or deductive reasoning to reach logical conclusions. Revolutions in science occur when someone gains a new crucial piece of evidence or sees something in a new way that was obscure before. Various levels of filtering occur through the scientific process (see figure 1.2). Unfortunately, scientific information most readily available to the lay public is usually the more sensational information that catches the attention of the media—generally from nearer the top of the knowledge filter. These sources, along with the Internet, are where most adults learn about new scientific discoveries. Because this information is often at the debating stage, it unfortunately gives the public the view that science is unsure about what it is finding.

More Excerpts From Principles of Sustainable Living With Web Resource