In the current American climate science is divisive, inspiring unwavering trust in some and pure contempt in others. It’s talked about like a cohesive thing, spelled with a capital ‘S’, and scientists as a cohesive group, who either are all cold, manipulative know-it-alls or rigorous champions of truth, depending on who you ask. But the truth is that science isn’t a cohesive thing, it isn’t even a thing. Science is a method. Scientists are just people who use that method to figure stuff out, and by that definition, are a vastly more numerous and diverse group then the lab coat and goggles-wearing types you see on television.
Most importantly, science doesn’t have a capital ‘S’. It is not a club you join, or a religion to which you convert. There is no pledge, no coat of arms, no uniform or flag. There are no secrets about science or how science is done. To say that you do or don’t trust science is nonsensical. Science isn’t an assertion; there is nothing to agree or disagree with.
Actual assertions come in three types: true, not true and unknown.
You could argue for a fourth—unknowable—but we’ll tackle that another day. Science is the method by which assertions of the third type are found to be either of the first or the second type. What’s more, it is really the only way that assertions can make that jump. The scientific method relies on objective measurements to act as a point of comparison for subjective statements of truth. Just saying something doesn’t make it true, does it? There has to be some kind of arbiter; people are fallible. Stuff changes. Sometimes, people lie.
Accepting subjective statements of truth is, essentially, accepting “because I said so” as a valid explanation of how our world works, which it isn’t. Ever. No matter how many people “said so”, what they said is nothing more than a hunch until it is subjected to the scientific method.
The method is broken down into five parts:
And while that may sound formal and unapproachable, all that translates into is this:
I have a question about the world (question). I have an idea what the answer is (hypothesis), so I’m going to set up a situation where the thing I’m questioning does what it does where I can watch it (experiment). If I look closely at the thing I’m questioning, I can record what I notice about it and then compare what I noticed with other things that I already know (observation). Now I have a better idea of whether my original answer was right or not (conclusion).
After the conclusion comes the real fun. Humans, as it turns out, are absolutely terrible at correctly identifying cause and effect and, when left to our own individual notions, can arrive at some amazingly incorrect ideas about what is true. To get around this we have what the academic world calls publishing and peer review, which just means that you take your conclusion and share it with other people. And not just the conclusion, but the details of the experiment as well, so that people know how you arrived at the conclusion you did. Those other people can then do with that information whatever they wish: build on it, use it to form their own questions, even—and this is the great part—call bullshit.
Maybe someone else has already done an experiment on the same question and found a different answer. Maybe someone with a lot of experience doing experiments found a flaw in your set up that would effect the conclusion. There will be arguments and collaborations. New parameters and controls will be introduced. Conclusions will be refuted and truths overturned while others are more firmly entrenched in the body of knowledge on which we humans rely. A huge amount of energy will be spent by a great diversity of people in an effort to get as close to the real, actual truth as possible.
It is one of the most beautiful processes in the universe.
And make no mistake, “as close as possible” is as close as anyone—scientist or no—ever gets to factual truth. Discovering that you were wrong about something happens constantly in science and, no matter how much evidence there is supporting an idea, it must be revised, updated or sometimes even abandoned if new evidence is contrary to the old.
It’s why scientists use the term “theory.” A theory, contrary to dismissive popular usage, is something that satisfies the three basic requirements to be considered true:
1. It is observable (not a “because I said so” phenomenon).
2. It is reproducible (repeated instances of the same experiment lead to the same conclusion).
3. It is consistent (It can be used in conjunction with other knowledge to make accurate predictions about the way the world works).
It’s great word, theory, because it means that you know something surely enough that you can use it to do really cool things, like build airplanes, cure diseases, write compelling plays, scuba dive, help people but, all the while, you know that what you think is true might not be. You cannot rest on your knowledge; you must continue to learn. A theory means that, brilliant though you may be, you have no choice but to stay sharp and stay humble.
And the payoff if you do, is living as a close to truth as any person can claim to be.