We are lucky to live at a time when so many fascinating things are happening in science. Yet when I partake in any discussion, I’m often amazed at how many people carry misconceptions about what science is and how it works.
This is tolerable given that we all have varied backgrounds and have studied different things. But I feel compelled to offer clarity in five areas that seem to endlessly provide confusion.
NUMBER 1: SCIENCE DOES NOT DEAL WITH ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY
The purpose of science is to get a better grasp of reality. It is a process that attempts to produce the best explanations for what we observe. It is akin to charting new territory. You begin with a lot of guess work, mix in some trial and error, and ultimately you can produce a fairly reliable map of your surroundings.
The only real difference is that science is a never-ending cycle of observation and refinement – and this is a very important distinction. There is no level of absolute certainty in science.
If you’re in the city, you can be extremely certain the next thing you see coming down the road won’t be a wagon pulled by a pack of wild dogs – even though it's possible. You don’t have to be absolutely certain for it to be a reliable statement. Scientific knowledge works on the same basis. The aim of science is only to produce statements of varying degrees of certainty.
NUMBER 2: POSSIBLE AND PROBABLE ARE NOT THE SAME
Failure to recognize the disparity between what is possible and what is probable is one of the most fallacious slants against science.
Science by nature is very opened minded. The scientific method has discovered the structure of atoms and the essence of black holes – things that would otherwise seem completely implausible. But thinking scientifically is not about weighing every idea equally.
Discussing the likelihood of a wagon pulled by dogs passing through city streets is so improbable it shouldn’t even merit moment of your time. That’s not because you’re closed minded, it’s because there isn’t a single credible reason to consider the idea.
For the same reason, the application of science is not focused on what is possible. Anything is possible. Science is concerned only with ideas that offer demonstrable reasons to be considered probable.
NUMBER 3: “OBSERVE” DOES NOT MEAN “SEE”
It takes Neptune 165 years to orbit the sun. No one alive has witnessed a full completion of its orbit. Yet we know with a very high degree of certainty the path that Neptune will take. Why? Because you don’t need to witness events to know with extreme levels of certainty that they occurred or that they will likely occur.
If actually “seeing” an event was the only reason to believe something, then blind people would have no reason to believe anything. What is important here is to not mix up what is literally observable with what we can surmise.
If you should find a small hole near the bottom of your kitchen wall, some mouse droppings in your cupboards, and tiny mouse footprints spread across your floor, you don’t need to ever see a mouse to infer that you likely have one.
Like any crime scene investigation, you “observe” the evidence, interpret the facts, and if enough evidence exists, you arrive at an explanation of events. Your level of certainty varies directly with the amount of confirming evidence. This is the essence of science.
NUMBER 4: NOT ALL SCIENCE IS “ACCEPTED” SCIENCE
There are a lot of “scientific” ideas (those open to scientific study). The good ones are called hypotheses. With enough confirming evidence and successful testing by the scientific community, a good hypothesis can transition to scientific theory. As Einstein demonstrated when he overhauled Newtonian Physics, even the best scientific theories are not immune from revision or improvement.
A scientific theory is merely the best current explanation for the phenomena we observe that is accepted by the scientific community – in this sense, it is “accepted” science.
Many ideas currently being considered in the scientific community will prove to be wrong, but this in no way discredits science. Ideas have to begin somewhere, and a lot of them will often turn out to be bad ideas. This isn’t a detriment, it's merely part of the process of ultimately arriving at good ideas. As long as there are good reasons to consider a new idea, it's worthy of some discussion.
There is a huge difference between an idea that has some potential and one that is considered a scientific theory – they fall on opposite ends of the spectrum of certainty.
NUMBER 5: TRUST AND FAITH ARE NOT REQUIRED IN SCIENCE
When you arrive at an airport, it is not necessary for you to inspect the plane or speak with the pilot. You don’t even need to understand aerodynamics. You trust that your plane will arrive at its destination because the airline has a history of reliable flight. In this sense, many people “trust” the scientific community, but it is unnecessary. The beauty of scientific knowledge is that it is demonstrable. Every bit of scientific knowledge contains an explanation of how each conclusion was reached. If it did not, it would not be scientific.
Pretending to have answers gets you nowhere in the scientific community. Claims to superior knowledge are inconsequential. Personal charisma and good looks play no part. What is relevant is a willingness to have your ideas be scrutinized, thrashed, and proven false. The result is that no other process is as efficient at rooting out nonsense as the scientific method.
That isn’t to say that science is infallible (no credible scientist would ever suggest that), nor that it's void of corruption, motives, or bias. But any accepted idea has stood up to the scrutiny and rigorous testing of scientists from all over the world. That’s worth something, but you don’t have to trust any of it.
There is nothing about the scientific method that is based on any aspect of trust or faith – it is only concerned with what is demonstrable.
BONUS: A HANDFUL OF GREAT QUOTES ABOUT SCIENCE
“What makes a belief scientific isn’t whether it turns out to be true or not, but the process by which it is arrived at.” ~ James Hogan
“There are many aspects of the universe that still cannot be explained satisfactorily by science; but ignorance only implies ignorance that may someday be conquered. To surrender to ignorance has always been premature, and it remains premature today.” ~ Isaac Asimov
“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers which can’t be questioned.” ~ Richard Feynman
“In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” ~ Galileo Galilei
“Skeptical scrutiny is the means by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.” ~ Carl Sagan
‘In searching for the truth and often questioning it, scholars, thinkers, philosophers, and scientists have immeasurably influenced our world. Their medical breakthroughs, scientific discoveries, physical laws, and mathematical principles have imposed order, coherence, and clarity on what once seemed a random, indiscriminate, and lawless world.” ~ Dennis Kimbro
"The public has a distorted view of science because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries." ~ Freeman Dyson
"Science is the acceptance of what works and the rejection of what does not. That needs more courage than we might think." ~ Jacob Bronowski