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More things everyone should know about science

by Michael Nielsen on March 3, 2008

Chad Orzel has a great response to Eva’s question for SciBarCamp, “What are the ten things everyone should know about science?”:

I have three suggestions, which are really all part of one big idea:

1) Science is a Process, Not a Collection of Facts The essence of science, broadly defined, is that it is a systematic approach to figuring out how the world works:

1. look at the world around you

2. come up with an idea for why it might work that way.

3. test your idea against reality.

… making sure you do everything in your power to prove your idea in 2 wrong. When it’s your own ideas you’re testing, the easiest person in the world to fool is yourself.

(I know Chad didn’t intend this as a complete description, and I feel like I’m being pedantic with my addition. I’m on a bit of a kick right now thinking about how biases, especially confirmation bias, affect our view of the world, and how important skepticism is to the conduct of science.)

4. tell everybody you know the results of the test.

Put those steps together, over and over, and you have the best method ever devised for increasing our store of reliable knowledge. The precise facts found by this method are not as important as the process for finding them– given the process, and enough time, you can reconstruct whatever facts you need. The facts without the process are worse than useless, they’re dangerous.

2) Science is an essential human activity. You’ll often hear people who study art and literature wax rhapsodic about how the arts are the core of what makes us human– Harold Bloom attributes it all to Shakespeare, but you can find similar arguments for every field of art. Great paintings, famous sculptures, great works of music (classical only, mind– none of that noise you kids listen to)– all of these are held to capture the essence of humanity.

You don’t hear that said about science, but you should. Science is essential to our nature, because at its most basic, science consists of looking at the world and saying “Huh. I wonder why that happened?” Science is applied curiosity, and there’s no more human quality than that. (“Bloody-mindedness” is a close second.)

(And, from a purely practical point of view, science and the products thereof are the reason why we have the free time to sit around making and appreciating works of art. Without science, we’d still be plains apes scavanging the kills of more efficient predators than us.)

3) Anyone can do science. Science doesn’t depend on race and it doesn’t depend on gender. You don’t need to be rich to do science. You don’t even need to be good at math.

And, I might add, you don’t need to be “smart”. Every 3 year old kid pretty much applies the scientific method as Chad describes (well, they don’t usually publish). Scientists are just a lot more systematic and dedicated than most people. If there’s something that distinguishes them it’s that they appreciate the scientific method, and understand what goes wrong when you start to vary steps.

Science is, fundamentally, nothing more than a systematic approach to looking at the world around us and figuring out how it works. Money and mathematics are tools that can help with this process, but the core of the enterprise is nothing more than a habit of mind.

One of the most pernicious lies told by our culture is that science is an elite and exclusive activity only available to a few. It leads to scientists being stigmatized as “nerds” or “geeks,” set apart from the rest of humanity, and it leads to tenured professors with Ph.D.’s in the humanities to say with a laugh “I just don’t understand science.”

Science does not require innate abilities beyond the standard-issue human genome. If you have the full complement of senses and a brain, you can do science. In fact, the core business of humanities scholars– sifting through texts looking for evidence to support a particular argument– is not really any different than the business of science. You come up with a theory of what’s going on in a particular work of literature, and then you check to see whether that holds up by systematically evaluating the evidence found in the text. That’s one step removed from doing science.

You may not understand a particular set of facts produced by science, but see point #1 above: Science is a process, not a collection of facts. You won’t necessarily understand all the facts of a particular science outside your own field of expertise– I don’t understand microbiology worth a damn– but if you have the brain power necessary to function as an autonomous adult, the process is within your grasp.

And again, if you have the process, you have the ability to eventually understand the facts. I don’t understand microbiology, because I haven’t been trained in those facts, but I know that I could understand it, and if I ever need that understanding, I know the process by which to get it. For that matter, I don’t understand feminist literary criticism, but I know that I could if I needed to, using the same mental toolbox.

From → SciBarCamp, Science

5 Comments
  1. Digital permalink

    Very well worded. Damn shame the people who need to read it will never read through it for more then a single line of text to take out of context.

  2. Hmm. I would sum up the scientific method thus:

    1 Have an idea that explains something.
    2 Try to prove your idea wrong (look for counterexamples).
    3 Ask what the idea predicts.
    4 Go see if the predictions are correct.
    5 Share idea.

    I avoided the words “test your idea” and “experiment” because they are vague, scare laypeople, and don’t stress the fact that scientific ideas MUST be predictive, not just explanatory.

    In fact most people in the world could wildly enhance their apparent intelligence simply by taking care to ask the following question every time they have what they think is a good idea: What does the idea predict?

    Once you are used to asking that question, the method becomes a natural part of everyday life, and allows you to quickly evaluate the quality of other people’s ideas as well.

  3. Also…
    Great Post! Bringing the scientific method itself into people’s everyday lives is REALLY important.
    Sorry for not mentioning that in my earlier post.

  4. Nick permalink

    While a senior scientist in one field can reasonably be expected to be able to understand research in another, it is not reasonable to expect that the ability to do science (properly and to any meaningful degree in the modern world) is ubiquitous. Not everyone has the aptitude to do science correctly (even though the process is essentially a controlled extension of basic learning). The yoke of rigor and the careful application of logic is extremely difficult for many people — in fact (I would argue) for MOST people. This is especially true, though, of those who process the world primarily through intuition and emotion.

    The same argument can be made for theatre performance, social prowess, construction work, leadership, etc. Any skill requires practice, but it also requires some innate ability — talent. Michael Jordan has talent for basketball, but not for baseball (as he very well demonstrated). Similarly, there must exist extremely talented singers that have little or no aptitude for logical deduction and rigorous experimentation to the extent needed to pursue research in neuroscience.

    Distilling the scientific method down to a few basic steps, which (as stated) anyone can do, is useful; focusing on the process over the results is essential. However, it’s not reasonable to claim that just because someone can write a grocery list that that person can also, given enough time and effort, write plays to rival Shakespeare. Science, when done properly, is really hard work! It requires certain natural talents not possessed by all people to the same degree.

  5. Science, when done properly, is really hard work!

    One could equally well say, “Riding a bicycle, when done properly, is really hard work! It requires certain natural talents not possessed by all people to the same degree.” Yes, this is true, if you’re talking about Olympic-quality bicycle riding. Likewise, your statement is true, if you’re talking about Nobel-quality science.

    On the other, applying basic science to your daily life is as easy as riding your bicycle around your block. In essence, science is an attitude that says experiments outrank all non-experiment-based arguments. Anybody can have this attitude, if they want it.

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