Scientific Questions: Nature and Scope


By Robert M. Hazen, Ph.D., George Mason University

It is natural for people to have a desire to know things about the natural world, and science is the best way to discover how the physical universe works. This process of discovery employs the scientific method, which may be idealized as a cyclic process of inquiry that is based on observations, synthesis, hypothesis, and predictions that lead to more observations.

Image of a question mark and concept of science.
Scientific inquiry is the best way to get the desired answers. (Image: carlos castilla/Shutterstock)

Nature of Scientific Questions

The National Science Education Standards call for science education reform centered on the idea of science as a process of inquiry. One of the things to consider is the surprising nature of scientific questions themselves.

There are about six different aspects of scientific questions, and the first of these is that many important questions are absolutely beyond the realm of science. For instance, science cannot tell the meaning of life or if God exists. Science addresses only those questions that can be answered by reproducible observation, by controlled experiments, or by theory guided by mathematical logic.

According to Kenneth Bolding, an economist and a philosopher, “Science is the art of substituting unimportant questions, which can be answered, for important questions which cannot.” Nevertheless, science informs many of the important non-scientific questions in our lives such as choices about health, work, relationships, and so on.

Learn more about the nature of science.

Scope and Content of Scientific Questions

Scientific inquiry is as diverse as the natural world itself, but most scientific questions fall into four broad categories—existence questions, origin questions, process questions, and applied questions.

Image of Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin is known for his contributions to the science of evolution. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The existence questions ask: what objects and what phenomenon occur in the natural world? For hundreds of years, this has been a passion for scientists. Scientific explorers of past centuries reveled in voyaging to exotic lands in pursuit of animals and plants, of mineral specimens and fossils. Charles Darwin cut his scientific eyeteeth as a naturalist in the voyage of the Beagle.

This passion has led chemists to isolate element after element and physicians to dissect diseased corpses. Astronomers cataloged stars and physicists scrutinized the unusual phenomenon associated with electricity and magnetism. And this passion continues even today.

Origin Questions, Process Questions, and Applied Questions

Origin questions explore how natural objects and phenomena came to be. Questions about the origin of the universe, the Earth, and of life are among the most fascinating mysteries in science.

Process questions, on the other hand, ask how nature works. These questions are often closely linked to inquiries about origins. For instance, they explore how stars evolve, how rocks erode, how atoms interact with each other, and so on.

Finally, there are applied questions that look for ways to manipulate the physical universe to our advantage such as curing disease, devising new materials, and modifying the environment. Such questions are often quite specific, and they are often rooted in technology.

This is a transcript from the video series The Joy of Science. Watch it now on The Great Courses Plus.

The Thing About Old Questions

An interesting aspect of scientific questions is that old questions, when they are answered, often lead to a whole new set of questions. The more knowledge grows, the more one realizes how much one doesn’t know.

There have been many unanticipated discoveries such as x-rays, tectonic plates, and the genetic code among others. All of these discoveries opened up vast new areas of research.

Rather than answering a question, a door to whole new regimes is opened. For example, the answer to existence questions invariably leads to questions about process and origin. If extraterrestrial life is discovered, it would not only tell scientists that those life forms existed but would open up huge areas of research about exobiology.

Scientific Questions Are Often Interconnected

It is seen that scientific questions are often interconnected in surprising ways. If scientists explore the most sweeping unanswered questions, they often discover links between what had first seemed to be very unrelated topics. Big questions really then tend to blur the traditional boundaries of science departments that unify people’s view of the natural world.

One of the examples that explain the interconnection of scientific questions is about plate tectonics. Plate tectonics was a revolution in earth science, which showed how the dynamic interior of the Earth bears directly on people’s understanding of what is happening at the surface. Plate tectonics also provided profound information about life’s origin and evolution.

Studies of ancient mass extinctions provide models for understanding the importance of today’s global environment. It may help answer many questions that people have about what humans are now doing to the environment, even though one is looking at environments on the Earth millions of years ago.

Learn more about the ordered universe.

Scientific Questions And Philosophical Approach

Image showing interconnection between dots
Often scientific questions are interconnected and what seems unrelated at first tend to be connected in the most unusual way. (Image:

Scientific questions are often linked by their philosophical approach. For instance, reductionism provides one approach to answering questions. It assumes that physical systems can be understood by looking at the smallest building blocks, the smallest units.

One can understand materials by looking at atoms and people by looking at their genes. Looking for the finest structure of matter, even below the scale of the atoms, below the scale of the atomic nucleus, and from that trying to understand the entire physical universe is an example of reductionism.

At the extreme opposite, there are ecosystems such as the brain or the universe as a whole that have to be studied in their collective whole as unity.

It is found that many of these large complex systems display behavior that one could never predict just on the basis of the individual components. What one sees here are called “emergent properties.” For example, from atoms planets are formed, from planets one gets life, and from life emerges consciousness.

At each stage, one can never predict that emergent property from the previous set of starting materials.

Common Questions about Scientific Questions

Q: What are existence questions?

Existence questions are scientific questions that ask what objects and what phenomenon occur in the natural world.

Q: What does origin questions explore?

Origin questions explore how natural objects and phenomena came to be.

Q: What are applied questions?

Applied questions are scientific questions that look for ways to manipulate the physical universe to our advantage.

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