Friday, January 20, 2017

The Scientific Method and its Value to Society

Now that we have a President who is a conspiracy theorist on climate change and vaccines, issues around which the wrong policies can lead to significant loss of life, it is important that we remind ourselves of what science is, and its value to society.

Science is a METHOD for improving our understanding of how the universe works; for moving that understanding gradually closer to the truth. 

In one sentence, that method is: Ask a question, form a hypothesis, test the hypothesis with experiment, make observations, draw conclusions, adjust hypothesis, test the new hypothesis, make new observations. ..  etc.. 

It is iterative. It is self-correcting. It is peer-reviewed. It is evidence-based. It is repeatable. It is never finished.

Science is NOT the conclusions of a single study. It is NOT the results of one or two experiments. It is not the untested hypothesis (which is where conspiracy theorists stop). It is not even a consensus among a group of people. It is a PROCESS by which we test those hypotheses, conduct those experiments, reach those conclusions, and achieve that consensus.

Science is not a one-person endeavor. It REQUIRES multiple people testing each other's hypotheses, criticizing each others' experiments and reasoning, and challenging each other to improve our understanding. "Consensus" only comes when many different people or groups test the same hypotheses and come to the same or similar conclusions. 

The METHOD is sound. 

The PEOPLE carrying out the method are flawed. We make mistakes. We succumb to bias. We overlook important details. We are ignorant of important phenomena that may affect our experiment's ability to detect.

But we are also motivated to criticize each other, and we are trained to not take those criticisms personally. To meet argument with argument, not insult. We are trained to support claims with evidence. To re-consider claims when other credible evidence emerges. 

Dedication to the method requires us to make an effort to set aside some of our human nature. To repress the urge to defend a flawed argument. To set aside our attachment to the work we just carried out, and consider the possibility that we may have made a mistake. To admit when we made those mistakes, and to correct our methodology and try again. And to admit that our original hypotheses may have simply been wrong, and to follow the evidence instead of our preference for how we'd like the universe to work.

Carl Sagan once described human ignorance as inadvertently constructing a "demon-haunted world". A world in which the darkness of our ignorance leads us to assume the existence of demons, dragons, devils, (or angels), and all manner of human-contrived gap-fillers to artificially alleviate the absence of understanding in our minds. In the demon-haunted world, we are have no way of telling truth from artifice. We are vulnerable to unfounded fears, unsubstantiated assumptions. 

And we are vulnerable to snake-oil salesmen. To people who make statements that are not based in reality, in an effort to control us or to convince us that we should outsource our critical thinking to them.

The scientific method, then, is a "candle in the dark". It's a way to avoid contriving gap-fillers. It's a way to shine a light and dispel our wrong ideas about the demons, the dragons, the devils, the angels. To dis-arm the snake-oil salesmen, and to regain our own power to distinguish truth from falsehood. 

So here is my challenge to you, my friends, on this inauguration day where we have installed a snake-oil salesman as our leader:

Be scientists. Be critical. Check sources. Search out evidence. Be wary of biases, both in yourself and in others. Apply the method. 

Become a candle in the dark. We need them. Now more than ever.


If you're interested in the book I'm referencing by Carl Sagan:

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