As Earth science has a single uncontrolled object of study, the first rule is to take today’s data today. While ice and sediment cores and fossils can reveal past conditions, the observations that can be made right now cannot be replaced by ones taken later. This goes well with the Native American adage, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” The environment is constantly changing and doing so on a wide range of time and space scales.
In a recent video post, Neil deGrasse Tyson said,
“One of the great things about science is that it is an entire exercise finding what is true. You have a hypothesis; you test it. I get a result. A rival of mine double checks it because they think I might be wrong. They perform an even better experiment than I did, and they find out, ‘Hey, this experiment matches; oh, my gosh, we’re on to something here.’ And out of this arises a new emergent truth.”
His remarks in defense of science don’t explain the scientific method in Earth science. There is a fundamental difference between science that can be done with controlled experiments to test theory and Earth science where a control planet is unavailable. This shifts the emphasis to continuous global measurement that is intercomparable over time and location and to modeling and the extensive use of modeling to connect all the observations together.
Taking today’s data today is a way in which students and all citizen scientists can do something that matters for understanding Earth. It also opens opportunities for students to go beyond data taking and do science. Students can look at their environment and ask a question or state a hypothesis whose answer or truth is not known for a particular area and time period. A student research investigation can then proceed gathering data, doing analysis, reasoning to conclusions, and presenting results. In this way, students can learn science by doing science and contribute to the overall effort to understand our planet and its environment.