Science is a Method,
not a Belief
"There is no shortcut to truth, no way to gain knowledge of the universe except through the gateway of the scientific method."
Thank you to the scientists and journalists who helped review and critique this essay, especially Amanda Daria Stoltz (@science_barbie), Megan Dailey, (@TheDaileyEditor), and Anthony Warmack (@AnthonyWarmack)
Science is often treated as an ideology, and through this mislabeling, is able to be discredited. But science is not a worldview, nor a set of opinions, nor a belief system. It is, in fact, the most rigorous method of defining the properties of nature humanity has ever established. Science, unlike belief systems, requires users to constantly adjust, change, or destroy their own interpretations. Doing so allows users of the scientific method to have a more complete, more accurate understanding of the world.
A stable democratic society relies on policies and interpretations guided by established scientific consensus among experts. Equally important is scientists' ability to disseminate that information in a way the public understands and can easily research for themselves. Science encourages critical thinking, healthy skepticism, and consensus through repeated and verified experimentation. It cannot, and never will, provide answers to abstract, philosophical questions, only concrete, rational ones.
The following essay is meant to help better define what science is and its function in society. It's not meant to tell the reader what to think; rather, to show the reader how to think, in a way that accurately and demonstrably helps us all to understand the natural world and, by extension, integrate that process of thinking into our societies.
January 8, 2018
by S. Alex Martin
Science is a tool of investigation
When discussing science, it is important to remember one simple fact: science is not a belief. This is, perhaps, the greatest misconception of our modern era. It is an inherently dangerous misconception, because it destabilizes credible information and makes opinions, values, and beliefs undeservedly indistinguishable from facts.
Science is a method, nothing more than a process of investigation. Just as detectives inspect evidence at crime scenes and interrogate suspects and witnesses to determine the cause and motivation of a murder, so too does science inspect evidence and draw theories. In the words of Arthur Conan Doyle, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
But remember: because science is only a method, most theories are therefore more fluid than permanent. All theories are subject to new evidence, data, and experiments, each a more improved version of its previous form. Over time, we translate the most stable theories into mathematical equations that reliably predict or explain physical phenomena. In this way, scientists and mathematicians form a hypothesis, that is, an educated guess, that, in its most basic form, can usually be structured as a simple phrase:
"If this, then that."
As a hypothesis, an If/Then statement can be translated into an equation that allows us to draw conclusions using data derived from previous experiments and observations, which can then be tested experiment for verification. This can be as simple as basic multiplication:
"IF we have 2 rows of 3 apples, THEN we have 6 apples."
or as complicated as finding the boiling point of a solution at sea-level:
"IF we have a solution with 1 mole particle per 1 mole of solute, a molality of 0.0328 moles per kilogram, and a molal boiling-point elevation constant of 0.961 degrees Celsius per kilogram per mole, with water as solvent, THEN the boiling point of the entire solution is 100.0315 degrees Celsius."
The jargon present in the second statement is one of the many reasons experts exist in individual fields. Be honest: do you know what "molality" and "molal boiling-point elevation constants" are? Probably not. I myself only did a few minutes of research to write that statement. Even as someone who loves researching scientific concepts, this doesn't make me an expert, or even adequately knowledgeable about molal boiling points. Without doing more research and talking to chemists who work with solutions such as this, I can't possibly hope to understand what all of that jargon actually means. In fact, as someone with an education background in math and physics, the denotations used to represent the above statement are still foreign to me:
ΔTb = i Kb m
When I see "i," I think of i = sqrt(-1), an imaginary number that has a particular use in mathematics. When I see "m," I think m = mass in kilograms, and when I see "kb," I think of...kilobytes?
But I know I'm wrong. In order for me to correctly understand each variable of the equation, I need to contextualize them, that is, use their denotations as assigned by this specific concept in chemistry. When I did research to determine if this equation was the correct equation to compute the molal boiling point, several academic and institutional websites and textbooks listed this exact equation.
The fact that so many publicly-available resources agree that this is the correct equation gave me confidence that, when I input data into each variable, I would receive an accurate molal boiling point based on the variables. As a result, this general agreement strengthened my trust in not only the equation, but in the scientific consensus: the verification provided by a community of experts.
A consensus of information
There are people who intensely pursue, study, and practice chemistry. Those people are the experts. It is therefore my responsibility, as a layman to the field of chemistry, to trust the chemists who are experts in their specific fields. Going even further, I have to trust a body - a community - of chemists. This doesn't always mean take them at their word right off the start; rather, I have to do some research on my own, read some literature, and understand the conclusions chemists around the world have reached based on their far more extensive experiments and research. As I develop my understanding, and determine the degree of the consensus, then I can have more immediate trust in the future.
Developing this trust is where the integrity of our democratized society becomes most vulnerable: we, as individual and collective citizens, have access to unprecedented amounts of information, misinformation, and disinformation. We must hold ourselves accountable to apply logic and rationally deduce which sources convey which type of information. Information is generally the most accurate and verified results, and should be used as the infrastructure around which to develop public policies. Misinformation takes information and skews it to fit a particular agenda, one that often appeals to emotion, rather than logic (which we'll discuss later in this essay). Disinformation is false information that, once again, often plays into an emotional agenda. But whereas misinformation takes information and skews it, disinformation is almost always unverifiable, and collapses when tested.
Once we understand what type of information we are researching, we can form our personal values, strengthen our rational and critical thinking, and create political policies that adhere to and enforce the values we developed. This should not be performed without an existing consensus, and, in arguably most circumstances, should not be done in direct opposition to the consensus.
Imagine if a group of physicists measured Earth's gravity to be 9.816 m/s² (the relevant precise gravity of Earth), but they had hoped to find it to be 10.221 m/s² because it would have fit into one of their equations better. Now imagine they decided to skew some data, insert the incorrect acceleration due to gravity, and publish the data for satellite and rocket companies to use. Without researching a consensus on the correct acceleration due to gravity, those companies would develop thrusters and engines according to the wrong calculations...and when launched, the rockets would overshoot the intended orbit, and either fall back to the Earth, or be flung into space lost forever. A consensus of data therefore allows us to develop equations that are reliable and accurate, and as a result, create better technologies and policies.
Science, as a method, is arguably perfect. The humans using science will inevitably have their own opinions and biases, though many have learned to develop a scientific way of thinking. When it comes to science, thinking rationally is important. You have to think a certain way to perform it without bias. At first, setting aside your biases is difficult. When something you discover doesn't line up with what you thought, you'll feel the apprehension rise in your chest, and want to throw out the result. Learning to accept what repeated experimentation shows you is crucial, though. Learning that it is okay to change what you thought based on new evidence. Scientific thinking is difficult to adjust to. Logic and reason are skills to be practiced, whereas emotional responses are more immediate and easier to agree (or disagree) with.
In order to maintain a stable, progressive, and successful society, we must learn to differentiate what requires science and rational reasoning, and what requires an emotional response. It is therefore important that we uphold this integrity, use science appropriately, and not let ideology dictate political agendas, financial opportunities, or personal worldviews that directly conflict with observable evidence and verified data. This is why it is so important for a scientific expert consensus to exist and use that consensus as infrastructure for public policies. Scientific work must be reviewed, tested with multiple variables, and receive the same results under similar conditions several times, by independent sources, before publication and integration. As a consensus grows, the more you can trust the reliability of a theory, data set, or observable evidence, and by this, you can form a stronger base of credible values.
Science is complex, not complicated
As you gather more data, you will be able to draw theories with increasing reliability. But if science seems complicated - that is, if you haven't produced a clear, logical result - then you need to collect more data and test more variables. Most importantly, have peers or institutions replicate, adjust, and verify your results. Science is an inherently collective experience. The more independent teams working toward any singular goal, the sooner the collective research development will make new discoveries and produce new results. More variables and designs can be tested in less time, and whenever a more reliable theory surfaces, everyone can climb one step higher and continue from there. More discoveries and results will branch off the new knowledge, and so on.
Take, for example, this opinion: "standing in the sun is bad." Think about it. Is standing in the sun bad? For most people, of course not! Almost everyone goes outside every day. Sunlight even catalyzes the production of Vitamin D (no, Vitamin D doesn't come from the sun, like we're all told as kids. Then again, do many adults know that? Hmmm...) And along with boosting vitamin production, sunlight quite literally gives us some usable energy. But you don't want too much. That's how problems arise.
Consider this next statement, which I derived after researching a consensus of scientific data (but is obviously common knowledge): "standing in the sun too long will give you a sunburn." Alright, now we're closer to a rational argument, versus the opinionated one we saw above. Sunburn hurts and itches. It hurts and itches a lot. But, scientifically - that is, when we think about sunburn from a logical, investigative standpoint - what factors cause a sunburn to happen more quickly or slowly in some people than others?
The answer, of course, is complex. Very, very complex. It varies from person to person, because an individual's genetic traits and current environmental circumstances provide varying levels of protection or susceptibility. The thickness of your skin, how quickly your body heals itself, your blood pressure, the amount of stored energy in your body, how hydrated you keep yourself, the amount of melanin present in your skin, how quickly your body produces and excretes that melanin, the angle of the sun, the humidity, your biological age... The light of factors goes on and on, and all of them contribute to one result: how long will it take you, as an individual, to develop a sunburn? Calculating the answer isn't complicated, just complex!
Scientific theories are staircases of acquired knowledge
Being a method of investigation, science allows us to deduce the most probable explanation for physical phenomena. Science observes a phenomenon, compiles evidence to explain why that phenomenon occurs, then formats the evidence and variables into an equation. Then, as more institutions perform studies and experiments, each with new variables and shifts in the experiment, a wider range of conclusions can be drawn. Science, therefore, allows us to make predictions based on patterns acquired through numerous and extensive experimentation and data gathering. We can reliably draw new conclusions based on previous models, then adjust those models by adding or removing variables that may or may not be associated with the evidence.
Deniers and opponents of various scientific theories (who are usually laypeople to science) often criticize and attempt to draw in other deniers by pointing out that "20 years ago, scientists were saying this, but now they're saying this." While it seems reasonable to mistrust sources who appear to constantly change their views and publications, the truth is...science is fluid. With more evidence and data comes shifting ideas, hypotheses, and theories. If science were rigid, it would be a form of doctrine. That's one of the beauties of science: it has the ability to destroy incorrect information.
Remember, we are only human. Biological organisms placed into existence by biological processes. All of us, even the most experienced, world-renowned scientists, started life having ZERO knowledge. A baby is not born knowing Newton's Laws of Planetary Motion, or the fact that those laws do not explain the motion of Mercury around the Sun. But because we have information storage--books, computers, memory cards--we are able to preserve and later access previously acquired knowledge. We don't have to rediscover mathematics with each new generation. We don't have to create new names for the dots of light twinkling in our skies. We don't have to trail-blaze a path from our house to our friend's house. All of our knowledge, all of the information we discover every day, becomes preserved through our technological advances. So even though we are constantly learning new information as we grow into adults, we need only open a book or read a webpage to gather the information we need right now. We don't need to memorize every digit and every variable of every equation. We just need to know where to look, then use it and build off it.
Photographs, books, audio recordings, memory cards, and "cloud" storage are the best known examples of information preservation. Increasingly, strands of DNA (yes, the tiny molecules that make up our genes) can also have information stored on them. In fact, it's estimated that all of human history, and then some, can be saved onto DNA, and only take up the space of your average bedroom closet. Facilities of supercomputers and data drives would be obsolete. Today, a teenager is able to permanently record more information about their life through their phone than we know about some of the most famous people in all of history. And with more data being created in a single year than in all of human history prior to 2010, compact and efficient data storage might be able to preserve all this new information for millions of years to come.
Think of it this way: every new discovery and equation, once recorded, is a step on a staircase, and at the top of each staircase is the door to a new discovery. The catch is, nobody knows how many steps are on any given staircase, how long it takes to reach the next step, or what discovery lies behind whatever door we encounter. We can make educated guesses and test experiments and variables that guide us to other steps. New evidence provides us with new steps to stand on, and there may never be a top step to reach. That's another beautiful thing about science: new discoveries are not the end of the path, but the beginning of several others.
Gathering more evidence develops a better theory
As we mentioned above, theories change, and they should change. This fact is more beneficial than detrimental. As more observations are made and more data is gathered, we have to constantly examine evidence and evaluate equations. If there are repeatable deviations, the equation must be changed. This does not, however, necessarily mean all theories that change are wrong.
Think of it this way: your first impression of a person gives you a superficial view of who they are and how they interact with others. The more you interact, the better an understanding you achieve. You learn who that person is. Maybe as you learn more, you enjoy them more. Or, perhaps, each interaction makes you want to avoid them more. This is information gathering, and it's crucial to how science operates.
In the previous section, I mentioned that Newton's Laws of Planetary Motion don't accurately represent the motion of Mercury around the Sun. Here's what happened: Mercury's orbit, from a mathematical perspective, is...odd. Astronomers in the 1800s and early 1900s observed Mercury revolving farther around the Sun each Mercurian year (approximately 88 Earth days) than the traditional Newtonian calculations said it should. The astronomers became convinced there was a planet even closer to the Sun than Mercury that acted gravitationally on it. This yet-to-be-discovered planet came to be known as "Vulcan." Though no one had ever seen Vulcan, they were convinced its presence was the only factor that explained Mercury's movement. This idea stuck for decades...until Einstein formed his theories of General and Special Relativity. Einstein's equations improved upon Newton's equations, and stated that Mercury's closeness to the sun caused it to "skid" on the fabric of space-time with a more pronounced effect than planets farther away. Simply put, Einstein's equations described gravity better than Newton's, introduced the concept of space-time, and opened up a completely new field of astronomy that has remained reliable since its conception more than a century ago. The science--that is, the methods of observation and calculation--was improved.
Updates in science aren't always huge, calculation-altering revelations. Sometimes the improvement is as small as the invention of the microscope, which is just a sophisticated array of magnifying glasses. Even the ability to launch rockets and put telescopes into space allowed us to do better science. When observing stars, nebulae, and galaxies, telescopes orbiting Earth aren't hindered by light distortions caused by atmospheric refraction and turbulence, factors which even telescopes placed on mountaintops must deal with. When you look into the night sky and see stars flickering, that's because the 58 to 75 miles of air above you is moving in different directions and has different temperatures and densities at different altitudes. In outer space, there is no significant atmosphere to reflect light pollution or distort incoming wavelengths, so the stars don't flicker. It is for this very reason that telescopes in space are able to see objects that are millions of times fainter than what telescopes of the same (and even larger) size on the ground can detect.
On the flipside, Earth-bound telescopes can be hundreds of times larger than telescopes we are able to send to space (the largest telescope in the world is the 500-meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, in China. Its size is in its name!) Clearly, we can't yet send a telescope nearly 1/3 of a mile wide into space. What these telescopes lack in optics, however, they make up for in capturing other wavelengths. The 500-meter telescope collects radio waves, as do Arecibo in Puerto Rico, the Very Large Array in New Mexico, and the Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia (I have been to that one, and there is no cell or data service for a thirty-mile radius, to prevent interference. Talk about being cut off from the world...) None of these telescopes measure visible wavelengths, but a range of radio wavelengths, which are longer and less frequent than visible wavelengths. Although heavily affected by the Earth's atmosphere, the size of the telescopes capturing them allows those telescopes to capture a relatively large amount (that is, just enough to use).
Question everything...the right way
You'll often hear the phrase "question everything." Unfortunately, this phrase is also often misconstrued and used to wrongly argue against scientific theories and evidence. Conspiracy theorists love tossing around these words, because without context, it makes their claims sound rational. You'll see "NASA wants you to think the Earth is round, but it's actually flat. QUESTION EVERYTHING!" or "The government is controlling our brains with airplane contrails. QUESTION EVERYTHING!" When you stop and take a moment to think in a logical, qualitative way, you can easily see how bogus these claims are. Conspiracy theories are designed to evoke an emotional response that overrides the rational response in your brain. They want you to react, not think. Manipulating your emotions sows at first a subconscious, then conscious distrust of experts who have dedicated years and decades to researching, collecting data, and making direct measurements and observations in the field.
"Question everything," from a scientific perspective, means you should always start by asking one question: "Why?" It's as simple as having the curiosity to ask questions, investigate the answers, then confirm those answers in repeated tests and with multiple sources. As mentioned before, developing a consensus will bring you closer to validating the true cause of any physical phenomenon. These questions can range from any topic in any field of science, such as the following:
Why is dry sand on a beach really hot, but the water in the ocean is really cold, even though both surfaces receive the same amount of sunlight?
Why do two shadows seem to stretch toward each other when brought near one another?
Why does the sun appear to rise and set faster than it travels across other parts of the sky?
Why does a hollow sphere roll slow than a solid sphere of the same radius and mass?
With the exception of the first question, you can easily investigate each of these phenomena for yourself. For starters, be sure to closely examine the physical properties of shadows, the apparent size and location of the sun in the sky, and the density of the two spheres. The sand and water question is trickier, because it deals with properties of thermodynamics, the electromagnetic wavelengths water and sand are each able to absorb, ocean currents, salinity, and other factors that are difficult for the general public to measure. This question is complex.
What many people fail to realize is that the method of science cannot prove theories, but it can immediately disprove theories. "Proof" in science is a lack of "disproof," and therefore a sign of reliability. As we stated earlier, science is inherently a method of elimination, not confirmation. This is what makes science so reliable as a method of discovery: it allows us to draw conclusions by eliminating what doesn't reliably reproduce the observation. In this way, it should also prevent us from confirming our personal beliefs. Proper science prevents both "confirmation bias" and "experimenter bias." Just because we hope to achieve a certain result doesn't mean that result will occur, and we should do everything we can to avoid designing experiments meant to confirm biases. This is why distorting and altering data is not only irresponsible, it's dangerous: you can only create systems, machines, programs, and equations based on collected data. If that data was altered or forged from observation, the systems will fail, and the wrong policies will be developed.
I highly encourage you to "question everything," but not because you refuse to trust expert research and experimentation. As we'll discuss next, be a skeptic, not a denier (and definitely don't be a conspiracy theorist). Do your best to maintain a rational mindset capable of filtering and identifying faked (or just plain wrong) information, and when using science, stay away from an emotional mindset that makes you more susceptible to denying expert knowledge, making illogical fallacies, contradicting yourself, and generating disprovable theories. Always form logical conclusions using the evidence you uncover. Always ask "why?" Then conduct and repeat your own scientific investigations as necessary, compare your results with peers' and other published research, and test new variables to see what results you produce. Remember, some of the greatest scientific discoveries were made on accident: penicillin, x-rays, microwaves, and even superglue!
Skeptics, Deniers, and Conspiracy Theorists
When you boil it down, there are three categories of thinking about science: skeptical thinkers, deniers, and conspiracy theorists.
Let's start with skeptics. Skeptics are friends of science. Genuine skeptics form rational arguments, study reputable research, and use reliable science and confirmed mathematics to check and challenge theories and conclusions. Skeptics are healthy for science. Outside of direct peer review, skepticism regulates a system of checks and balances. Skeptics don't approach science a preconceived belief, but rather, with a disbelief. Instead of saying, "I don't think that is what happens," skeptics ask, "Have you confirmed this happens repeatedly?" All scientists are skeptics. Everyone should be a skeptic. We all should be examining our and others' work, repeating our experiments and observations, and making our methods available for peer review and analysis.
Deniers are an entirely separate class of approaching science, and some deniers are conspiracy theorists. Deniers approach scientific theories with preconceived ideologies, and resist rational interpretations and conclusions despite the evidence provided. Oftentimes, they will skew the presentation of data or make illogical interpretations that preserve their current ideologies and biases. Although many deniers will attempt to use published scientific and mathematical methods to justify their conclusions, they will often use narrowed sets of data that do not accurately demonstrate relevant trends or theories. Deniers differ from skeptics in that skeptics do not hold a previous or uninformed bias, but allow evidence to form their beliefs and values; deniers begin with preconceived ideologies and try to mold the evidence to fit those ideologies.
Finally, conspiracy theorists. As stated above, some deniers are conspiracy theorists, and an argument could be made that all conspiracy theorists are deniers. Conspiracy theories could be considered a tangent of denialism, after all, because they arise from the preconceived belief that experts, the government, or other collective entities are deliberately misleading the public in some way, despite a verified consensus. Conspiracy theorists do not approach data or theories with rational arguments, but emotional ones, in an effort to weaken the mind's rational barriers. Once these barriers have been removed, people are more susceptible to validating false data, drawing illogical conclusions, shutting out logical ones, and misinterpreting established evidence, data, and theories to support their beliefs. Some conspiracy theories are impossible to verify one way or the other given current evidence, despite any obvious illogical fallacies, but neither do any hold up against adequate, repeated experimentation, analysis, and direct observation. Simply put, many conspiracy theories rely on facts that are not true, and principles that do not exist.
Bridging the Gap
In itself, the practice of science will always improve existing theories and equations, as well as gather new evidence for new theories that lead to new equations. Science allows for the development of informed policies based on an expert consensus, and these policies can improve the quality of life for the public. But in order for informed policies to take root and be enforced, there must first exist a clear, mutual dialogue between scientists (the experts), and the public (the laypeople).
We can call this necessary relationship Bridging the Gap, because there inherently exists a divide between scientific research and the general public's access to and ability to perform that research. The less accessible or readable the research is, the less support the public will show, leading to policies that deviate from scientific consensus, and, ultimately, a decline in the public's quality of life. So while bridging the gap between the scientific elite and the general public involves establishing a mutual, informed, and understandable dialogue, this dialogue must be prefaced by the general public making an effort to seek out and study research to inform themselves, and so too must the scientific elite make an effort to circulate and communicate their research.
It is here where a third party is likely necessary and beneficial: science communicators, the mediators between the scientific elite and the general public. Science communicators research complex topics, simplify them, and then present them to a broad audience. It's a filtering of the jargon and methods into terms the public understands and relates to. This communication can appear in the form of books, (Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time), television shows (Bill Nye the Science Guy; Cosmos), movies (Apollo 13, Interstellar), and direct public engagement. With the rise of social media, science communicators have found that seeking out members of the general public and guiding them through concepts on the spot is not only reaching a wider, and in some cases global audience, but it is allowing the general public to experience actual science in their everyday lives and practice new methods of thinking.
Science is a method, a series of steps and processes that allows us to construct theories of the natural world, so that we may go on to develop policies that are beneficial to both our society and nature. Understanding science is crucial to healthy, critical thinking that allows us all to become credible, rational skeptics, not impulsive deniers or conspiracy theorists.
As a society, we must learn to generate and maintain accessible dialogue between experts and the general public. Distributing factual information, filtering false claims, and allowing the public to experience and practice science in their own lives can enhance this dialogue.
Science is never a belief. Claiming it to be a belief discredits direct observations, measurements, repeated experimentation, peer review, and an established consensus. Science does not take position on any ideology or opinion, but allows us to form practical values and policies. Science is exciting, allows us to directly experience the world around us, and is a collective pursuit that encourages unity and collaboration!
So here's to all our endeavors.
Alex Martin is the author of seven futuristic science-fiction novels. He's also a science communicator on YouTube, and has given several assemblies at schools, colleges, bookstores, and libraries. The Experience Daliona website is an extension of his books and a representation of his greatest passions.