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Our Evolving Understanding of the Solar System: New Data, New Ideas
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For information about recent planetary science discoveries, check out the Planetary Science Research Discoveries (PSRD) website, a place to discover the excitement of doing science and finding answers, through the eyes of today's researchers.

From Project 2061, by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Scientific Ideas Are Subject To Change
Science is a process for producing knowledge. The process depends both on making careful observations of phenomena and on inventing theories for making sense out of those observations. Change in knowledge is inevitable because new observations may challenge prevailing theories. No matter how well one theory explains a set of observations, it is possible that another theory may fit just as well or better, or may fit a still wider range of observations. In science, the testing and improving and occasional discarding of theories, whether new or old, go on all the time. Scientists assume that even if there is no way to secure complete and absolute truth, increasingly accurate approximations can be made to account for the world and how it works.

Scientific Knowledge Is Durable
Although scientists reject the notion of attaining absolute truth and accept some uncertainty as part of nature, most scientific knowledge is durable. The modification of ideas, rather than their outright rejection, is the norm in science, as powerful constructs tend to survive and grow more precise and to become widely accepted. For example, in formulating the theory of relativity, Albert Einstein did not discard the Newtonian laws of motion but rather showed them to be only an approximation of limited application within a more general concept. (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration uses Newtonian mechanics, for instance, in calculating satellite trajectories.) Moreover, the growing ability of scientists to make accurate predictions about natural phenomena provides convincing evidence that we really are gaining in our understanding of how the world works. Continuity and stability are as characteristic of science as change is, and confidence is as prevalent as tentativeness.

Science Is a Blend of Logic and Imagination
Although all sorts of imagination and thought may be used in coming up with hypotheses and theories, sooner or later scientific arguments must conform to the principles of logical reasoning -- that is, to testing the validity of arguments by applying certain criteria of inference, demonstration and common sense. Scientists may often disagree about the value of a particular piece of evidence, or about the appropriateness of particular assumptions that are made -- and therefore disagree about what conclusions are justified. But they tend to agree about the principles of logical reasoning that connect evidence and assumptions with conclusions.

Scientists do not work only with data and well-developed theories. Often, they have only tentative hypotheses about the way things may be. Such hypotheses are widely used in science for choosing what data to pay attention to and what additional data to seek, and for guiding the interpretation of data. In fact, the process of formulating and testing hypotheses is one of the core activities of scientists. To be useful, a hypothesis should suggest what evidence would support it and what evidence would refute it. A hypothesis that cannot in principle be put to the test of evidence may be interesting, but it is not likely to be scientifically useful.

The use of logic and the close examination of evidence are necessary but not usually sufficient for the advancement of science. Scientific concepts do not emerge automatically from data or from any amount of analysis alone. Inventing hypotheses or theories to imagine how the world works and then figuring out how they can be put to the test of reality is as creative as writing poetry, composing music or designing skyscrapers. Sometimes discoveries in science are made unexpectedly, even by accident. But knowledge and creative insight are usually required to recognize the meaning of the unexpected. Aspects of data that have been ignored by one scientist may lead to new discoveries by another.

Science Is Not Authoritarian
It is appropriate in science, as elsewhere, to turn to knowledgeable sources of information and opinion, usually people who specialize in relevant disciplines. But esteemed authorities have been wrong many times in the history of science. In the long run, no scientist, however famous or highly placed, is empowered to decide for other scientists what is true, for none are believed by other scientists to have special access to the truth. There are no pre-established conclusions that scientists must reach on the basis of their investigations.

In the short run, new ideas that do not mesh well with mainstream ideas may encounter vigorous criticism, and scientists investigating such ideas may have difficulty obtaining support for their research. Indeed, challenges to new ideas are the legitimate business of science in building valid knowledge. Even the most prestigious scientists have occasionally refused to accept new theories despite there being enough accumulated evidence to convince others. In the long run, however, theories are judged by their results: When someone comes up with a new or improved version that explains more phenomena or answers more important questions than the previous version, the new one eventually takes its place.

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Last Updated: 12 Sep 2014