Science is at the core of many discussions in our modern world, yet is something which everyone interprets a little differently. Indeed, even for the professional “scientist” the word is ambiguous. I took a course in college highlighting seven different meanings of science, some leading to radically varying approaches to study.
It is not my intention here to put forth another academic treatise on the meanings of science. And, though I can be arrogant, I'm not so far gone as to believe that my thoughts are the final say on this incredibly complex subject. However, I would like describe what this word means to me, both professionally and in my approach to life. I hope that interpretations like mine can lead to understanding and open communication. After all, this topic is simultaneously powerful and polarizing.
Best to start with my definition. To me, science is an approach to understanding how the world works. That’s it.
The approach is a particular one known as the scientific method (several takes are available on what that means as well, but general references on the method abound). I just think of this as a very organized, systematic way of addressing a question. Understanding is gained in the form of generalizable knowledge (which I take to be different from human wisdom).
The method is inspired by a fundamental human curiosity. The entire point of this approach is to make sense of everything that goes on around us. The amazing part of it is that sensible patterns have emerged. What appears to be a storm of wild chaos whizzing around (weather, birds, bugs, people, cars, planets) seems to be, at least in part, based on an underlying order. A set of modest principles, when expanded to something the size of our Earth, gives rise to an astounding breadth of rich behavior.
As to what those principles are, I’ll leave that to your own study. Each field (physics, biology, chemistry, psychology, even economics) focuses on its own particular subset of the greater pattern, often at different size and timescales.
From this simple definition, subtleties abound. This has bred arguments, misconceptions, and in some cases anger. I like to think no one wants to carry it that far. In that spirit, I put forth a few of my opinions on phrases I’ve heard out there.
Science proves this.
Never the case. Inherent in the scientific method is a statistical analysis of experimental results. That means we infer the probability of an event occurring in the future given what we’ve seen in the past. Something is labeled “proven” if it is extremely likely to happen again. In reality nothing is guaranteed, only likely. Similarly, science cannot disprove anything. It can disfavor, perhaps strongly, but that is it.
Another major point that is behind the scenes-analysis of experiments nearly always relies upon some model of behavior. This is exactly like claiming a model car behaves exactly like a real car. If it is a good model, that’s almost true, but you’re never sure that you’re looking at the real thing. Science can say that a model is a good representation of the truth, but not that model=truth.
Don’t take this to mean that scientific results have no merit – I think we can all see from our recent technological boom that these probabilities and models, when understood, can change the world. Just recognize that absolute truth is harder to pin down that is often portrayed.
Science is confusing.
I won’t completely refute this one, but remember that science is not the only thing that has this reputation. However, at its core science is an organized and understandable approach to making sense of what we see everyday. If explained well, each step should be pretty clear. There are two parts that make this hard. One: there are lots of steps involved in rigorous scientific experiments. Two: the scientific method is not a natural way of thinking for most of us.
Let me illustrate. We see a few people drive past us fast on the interstate and we think “Man, people really fly here.” Everyone else in the car agrees, except for maybe Jim, and we move on with life. One step and done. End of normal approach.
A scientific approach is think, “Hmm, cars seem to go fast here, but is that true or were those last two drivers just anomalies?” One could set up an experiment to measure car speeds over a long period of time and accrue a list of man speeds. With some relatively simple math, one could analyze the car speeds, figure out the average driver speed, plus what percentage of people exceed the speed limit. Several steps, math needed, and a lot of more work than just assuming you are surrounded by speeders, but you have a much better idea of how people really drive in that area. Most of us don’t care, but civil engineers (who design the roads) and police officers might.
Of course, to do this right, a lot education is required (hence 4-9 years of college), but most people could follow this sort of experiment if they went through the schooling. Understandably, not everyone wants (or needs) to go through that, but it is nothing mysterious, just a lot of effort. In the end, a series of little steps build up a more complete picture of reality.
Nothing is valid until proven scientifically.
See the first comment on the “proven” part. What I want to get at here is that the scientific “stamp of approval” is, in my opinion, overblown.
The scientific method takes some work to implement, as we just saw with our interstate example. So going from a question to getting a definitive answer is very hard, especially when lots of variables are involved. For example, say we measured car speeds during a blizzard – we would conclude an average speed that is much lower than normal. This is most true when people are involved, as in medical research. Variability is off the charts, plus not that many people want to act as guinea pigs at any given time. So to say anything conclusive about every one of the 7 billion people on the planet from measuring a few dozen is all but impossible. Plus some rare events are super hard to measure because there is no easy way to set up a controlled experiment.
As another example, many Eastern medicines are only recently receiving widespread attention in the West, in part due to a recent scientific confirmation of their health benefits. This is also due to numerous other effects, such as the natural (and often healthy) reluctance to try something radically different. But we know that some of these practices have been effective long before they were scientifically “proven.”
My takeaway is that while scientific experiments absolutely help assess various methods and approaches to life, we still need to value human elements of tradition and social values. These have immense merit too that should not be forgotten, even in this age.
I may add to this list later, but this gets out a few of my general ideas. This one word, “science,” has become central to our culture, and to an extent our world. Of course, when an idea spreads that widely, it becomes wrapped up in many conflicting opinions and interpretations. Mine is just another one of those, but I consider myself more of a moderate (despite being a “scientist” for my day job). I am a proponent of responsible science in tandem with respectful and caring social practices. I hope that we all can go out into the world with eyes wide open, retaining both our curiosity and our humanity.
Science fiction draws its inspiration from...you guessed it - SCIENCE!