The Modern Survival Guide #11
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. However, if you’d like to test my views against objective reality and present me with a normalized distribution table of the results, I’d appreciate it, because this article is about science.
Science is responsible for our modern world. This statement is not open for debate; it’s like saying ketchup exists, or there are giraffes. But a lot of folks have trouble figuring out what science actually is, and that opens them up to the dangers of pseudoscience — dangers which include illness and death.
Let me be super clear about this: understanding science isn’t just some grade school requirement with no consequences in the real world. Understanding science, to a large degree, IS the real world. You ignore science at your own significant peril. And you can disbelieve in science if you want, but the universe doesn’t care — the law of gravity has not yet been repealed.
So — what is science? In short form, science is not a thing; it’s a process, the Scientific Method. You may remember this from middle school:
- Observe a Thing
- Question Why the Thing Does What It Does
- Form Hypothesis to Explain the Thing
- Develop Testable Predictions for an Experiment
- Test the Hypothesis via Experiment
- Change Hypothesis as Necessary
- Test Some More
- Aggregate Data
- Formulate a General Theory to Explain the Thing
What this is, when you get right down to it, is a systematic way of figuring out what reality is, and which actions cause certain effects. It is a process that emphasizes consistency, empirical proofs, and replicability of those proofs. It works really, really well, as evidenced by the fact that you are reading these words on a computer screen.
Now let’s get into some things that science is NOT:
Science is NOT about proving that your hypothesis is correct.
This may seem like a strange statement, but think about it — an experiment isn’t about proving the hypothesis, it’s about testing the hypothesis. To scientists, a negative result is just as important (in fact, more important) than a positive result.
Science is NOT about supporting a particular viewpoint.
Similarly, science is not about supporting beliefs or viewpoints. It is not a partisan process, when done correctly. Science is about establishing and explaining causal connections — ideally, if a scientific experiment demonstrates a causal connection contrary to an established viewpoint, it’s the viewpoint that changes, not the science (think Galileo’s model of the Earth revolving around the Sun, which was heresy at the time, but was correct nonetheless).
Science is NOT a belief structure.
People get SO CONFUSED about this, with religious advocates the world over stating that “science is just another belief.” No. It’s not. Science is what you get when belief is not part of the process. Science is concerned with what is. Belief is concerned with what we want things to be. The two are antithetical concepts. Science is not concerned with belief. Science is concerned with proof; once you have proof, you don’t need belief.
Science is NOT constant.
This is another hard concept for a lot of people to grasp, particularly people who prefer simple, straightforward answers — science changes. Often. That doesn’t mean scientists are wrong all the time; it means that we’re slowly peeling back the layers of reality to see what lies beneath, and sometimes what we find changes our ideas about how the universe works. Science is in flux constantly, and that’s a good thing.
Scientific theories are NOT irrefutable.
Apologies for the double-negative; what this means is that science is always subject to doubt, and every experiment should be designed with the goal of using empirical data to disprove a hypothesis. Even the most thoroughly-proven theory could be overturned tomorrow, and a new theory put in its place. Again, this does not mean that science is wrong — remember, science is the process, not the result. It just means that we are continuing to uncover new subtleties of the world. Sometimes what we think is a direct causal connection turns out to be just a link in the chain, or to be composed of numerous sub-processes.
And on the flip side, here are a few things that science totally is:
Science is a way of finding out what works.
Scientists are often unconcerned with deeper questions of universal existentialism; most science is focused on how we can do specific things to address specific problems or questions. In this regard, scientists are often less focused on why something works than how something works, at least initially. The “why” can come later; the “how” is often all you need to develop a new medical treatment or engine prototype, and the “how” is typically the part of the experiment that must be replicable. This leads to the next point…
Science is a way of finding out why things work.
Once you have the “how,” the “why” is often easier. For example, knowing that objects fall at an acceleration of about 32 feet per second (squared) on Earth, but at only about 5 feet per second (squared) on the Moon, is critical to developing a general theory of gravitation (namely, that it is related to mass). Or, as another example, once you know how a hydraulic pump works, it makes it easier to develop some general theories about water (namely, that it is not compressible).
The advantage offered by science in each of these cases is that it requires and provides proof, which leads us to the idea that…
Science is empirical.
“Proof” means that there is observable evidence to support a logical causal chain. Action A influences B, which causes C to occur. The key point here is that all of these events have to be observable, and occur in the real world. You can extrapolate from theory, but to build theory in the first place you have to rely on observed phenomena.
Science is predictive.
One of the key goals of any good theory is prediction. A scientific theory should be able to predict events in the past, the present, and the future. This is because part of the point of science is to describe the way the world works; once you have this information, you should be able to run a series of events through a theory and arrive at a conclusion that matches the real world.
If you can do this reliably, that theory becomes a predictive model — any set of circumstances that matches the conditions described in the theory should behave as the theory predicts.¹ Using well-documented past events is one of the best tests of a theory, and using a theory to explain why things happened in the past is just as valid as using a theory to predict the future.
Science is prescriptive.
The reason science works better than magic is that when science tells you to do A to achieve B, and you do A, you achieve B. Science operates on prescriptive instruction — the whole point of testing hypotheses is to eliminate the range of solutions that don’t work. Therefore, science is able to restrict the range of possible options down to just those that are very likely to achieve the desired outcome, and then direct practitioners to use those options to the exclusion of others.
Science is introspective.
The main difference between scientific processes and common sense, religion, or political ideologies is that science is constantly retested and re-evaluated, and changes as a result. The scientific method constantly enforces introspection and re-evaluation by requiring empirical proofs stemming from established hypotheses or theories. Therefore, when something is demonstrated as false, it is discarded. Sometimes this takes years to accomplish, but the emphasis is always on the burden of proof, not the impact of belief or wishful thinking.
Science is universal.
One of the core assumptions that has been borne out over hundreds of years of experimentation and observation is that the universe runs on rules that do not change. To the very best of our knowledge, the charge of an electron behaves the same way now as it did last Tuesday, last year, or a billion years ago, and behaves the same here as it does in the Andromeda galaxy.
Astrophysicists have very clearly demonstrated this proof many times, in support of many theories. This makes science one of the most powerful tools available to the human race, because once something has been proven on Earth, at one time, we can reliably assume that it always works everywhere and everywhen that have similar conditions.
Science is consensus-based.
No scientific theory is ever accepted based on one experiment. Theories require many dozens or hundreds (or, in the case of quantum physics, many thousands) of tests to ensure that they are valid, and each step of the way they are peer reviewed to ensure that the experimenter did not make a mistake. This affords science great advantages: it strips out the chances of theories being accepted based solely on the reputations of individual scientists, it ensures that there are large quantities of evidence to defend accepted theories, and it refines experimental procedures so that specific causes and effects are documented.
In summary, it is important to understand what is scientific and what is not. If a theory or hypothesis does not use the scientific method, it isn’t scientific. It’s both that simple and that complicated; once you go down the rabbit hole of experimental design, things can get tricky very fast, and a lot of pseudoscience gets started in bad experiment designs.
A solid knowledge of science will help ensure your survival in the modern world by steering you clear of bad science, pseudoscience, and just plain ignorance. This is the difference between taking homeopathic “treatments” for cancer vs. taking chemotherapy. It’s the difference between shunning microwaves because of “dangerous radiation” and heating up a burrito. It’s the difference between wearing or not wearing a seat belt. Keeping a firm grip on the realities of scientific discovery will help keep you happy, healthy, and out of the clutches of bullshit artists.
¹It’s a common attack on science to claim that, just because something was not directly observed, it cannot be a scientific conclusion. A lot of the arguments against things like Global Warming and the Big Bang Theory come from this angle, and it’s totally ludicrous. The whole point of science is to figure out how things work in general in order to predict specifics. In short: if the laws of physics work the way they do right now, they worked the same way 14 billion years ago, and they work the same way everywhere.
And they did. And they do. We know this in part because we can literally look into the past with high-powered telescopes (because light speed is a universal constant, so the farther things are from us, the longer it takes light to get to us, with the result that when we look at a distant galaxy we’re actually looking at a snapshot taken millions of years in the past). Physics still works the same, and you can test this on your own. Don’t fall for the line that we can’t use theory to predict what we can’t directly see.