Scientific literacy is woefully poor in the world. Many people don’t understand exactly what science is, and there is no shortage of misinformed people further spreading that misinformation. Science may seem complicated, subject solely to the realm of shut in nerds, but in reality its core principles are very simple. Anyone is capable of understanding science and doing science themselves!
What is science?
Science is a process of acquiring knowledge about the existence around us.
Science starts with only one assumption: “The universe exists and it obeys a set of rules.” By observing the way in which reality behaves, we can determine what those rules are. By understanding those rules and how reality operates, we can manipulate the world around us.
Science does not try and “prove” ideas correct. Instead, science tries to be unable to prove them wrong. (This is usually the hardest thing for people to understand. I’ll touch on it in a minute)
Science is restricted to existence. If something exists, then its existence is detectable. (If by somehow something exists and does not affect existence, therefore making itself undetectable, then it is of no concern.)
At the heart of the scientific process is the “scientific method”
For a hypothesis to be valid, it must be falsifiable. (It must be able to be shown to be incorrect) The hypothesis “things fall to the ground because invisible and undetectable angles push them” is not something that can be falsified, thus is untestable and invalid.
A conclusion must be based on evidence. Evidence at its most basic form is an observation. These observations are gathered during the testing phase to see how a hypothesis holds up. If a the evidence supports the hypothesis,great! If not, then the hypothesis must be revised in light of the new evidence.
(There are other rules that deal with how to set up an impartial, unbiased experiment, but I won’t go into that at the moment)
Normally in school science fairs this is where the process ends. The student does their experiment, shows their results, and then wins an award. In professional science, this is just the beginning of the process.
The next step in science is the dreaded “Peer Review”
Image by James Yang
When scientist “A” comes up with a hypothesis that seems to be supported by their experiment, they write up exactly what they did in a paper and submit it for peer review. In peer review other scientists in the same field of study attempt to destroy scientist A’s work. They look for any possible problem with how they conducted the experiment and the conclusions they reached. If scientist A’s experiment and hypothesis are sound, it is published in a scientific journal.
After all this comes the next hurdle: replication. Other scientists around the world (we’ll call them group B) then attempt to replicate scientist A’s experiment to see if they get the same results. Scientists B will then also submit their work for peer review. If they got different results, then somewhere either A, B or both did something wrong. Other scientists (Group C), usually though peer review, will attempt to work out what exactly is causing this difference by attempting to dismantle the work of both A and B.
This is what is meant by “science does not try and prove something true, only tries to be unable to prove it false.” It is only after a hypothesis survives these vigorous attempts to falsify it that it becomes a “theory.” By this time the hypothesis has accumulated lots of evidence and data through the process of experimentation and peer review, which lends strength to the theory. This theory can now be included in school and university curricula.
Like all things in science, a theory is not set in stone. Theories can be modified or adjusted in light of new evidence. When this happens it is a clarification of the theory that explains in more detail how the theory operates. Our understanding of atoms, gravity, and evolution have come a long way since those theories were first established, yet the overall theories remain.
Many scientists spend their entire lives working on a hypothesis, trying to get it to become a theory, only to have their hypothesis changed or abandoned in light of new evidence. This leads us to the another core element of science:
Progress in either direction is still progress.
The thought of having years of hard work overturned by new evidence might sound infuriating and gut-wrenching to some, but this is not the case in science. Remember, science is based on evidence. If the evidence contradicts your hypothesis, then you revise your hypothesis to fit the new evidence. Discovering new knowledge, even if contradictory to your original hypothesis, is still new knowledge! In this way science is perpetually exciting!
In science, it is perfectly ok to say “I don’t know.” These three simple words are often looked down upon in other aspects of life, but in science it symbolizes intellectual integrity, humility, and the excitement of new possible avenues for discovery! Scientists are the first people to admit they don’t have all the answers; in fact, they never claim to. Yet when science does have an answer to something, you can be assured that it is provided only after it is based on observable evidence, has gone through the thrashing of peer review, and has been unable to be disproven.
Science is a long, slow, and arduous process for learning more about existence, but it is the best tool we have. Quite often the fruits of that labor can take your breath away…