Friday, December 12, 2014

The Scientific Method For Dummies

I've had a couple of the usual suspects, plus a few new ones, come at me with variations on the "Science is a work of Man and therefore can't be trusted; God's word is eternal" and "You can't trust science because it always changes its mind" theme.


These two statements are evidence that there is a real lack of understanding on just how science works out there.  We're falling down on the job when it comes to educating our children, folks.


Anyway, in the hopes that someone will read this and understand it and become less confused about science in general, I'm going to try and give a short, to the point explanation of just what the scientific method is.  Now, I'm not a scientist except in the broadest definition of the term, so if I get some details wrong, I invite the professional scientists I am honored to call friends to correct me.


Anyway according to the dictionary, the "scientific method" is:


Principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experimentation in search of an explanation for the problem, and the formulation and testing of a hypothesis that explains the problem.


Seems simple enough.  Let's go step by step through the process:

  1. I identify a problem I want to solve.  In this case, I want to answer the question, "Do objects of different masses fall at differing rates?"  Seems pretty intuitive, right?  Heavier objects should, intuitively, fall faster.  But we can't just go by intuition, so we're going to seriously investigate the question.
  2. I collect data through observation and experimentation.  For example, I notice that two oranges of different sizes fall from the same tree and about the same speed and hit the ground at the same time.  Likewise, when I drop a relatively lightweight tennis ball and a much denser chrome ball bearing from the same height, they hit the ground at just about the same time.  I repeat this enough time to have a representative sample.
  3. I formulate a hypothesis:  I think all objects fall at the same rate, regardless of their mass, so I create the hypothesis, "In a vacuum, all solid bodies fall at the same rate regardless of their mass."  I specified "in a vacuum" because wind resistance and friction can cause some objects to fall more slowly.
  4. I devise an experiment to test my hypothesis.  For example, I can rig up two airtight tubes, one containing the aforementioned tennis ball and the other the aforementioned feather.  I'll suck all the air out of the tubes, creating a vacuum in each, then rig an electronic device that drops both the tennis ball and the feather from the top of the tube simultaneously.  I'll set up a high speed camera to record the results, then start dropping the objects from the top of the tube.
  5. After reviewing the data, I discover that every single time, the feather and the tennis ball hit the bottom of the tube at the same time.  In addition, every time I changed out the objects for different objects (nails, scissors, chicken eggs, my car keyes, my cellphone, whatever), the objects would nevertheless hit the bottom of the tube at the same time.  
  6. Conclusion:  All objects fall at the same rate in a vacuum.

I have, in fact, just confirmed my hypothesis.  You'd think that would be the end of it, but no.  Its just the beginning.


Now that I have my conclusions, I submit all my findings to my peers (that is, the other scientists).  These other scientists review my data, go over my findings, read my notes, watch endless reels of film wherein I drop everything from a salt shaker to a Buick Skylark from the top of a vaccum tube.  These other scientists will go over my work with a fine toothed comb.

They will not be kind or generous, because its their job to PROVE ME WRONG.


Yes, you read that right.  "Peer review" is a polite term for inviting every other human being... not just the scientists, but everyone who wants to give it a shot....  to try and overturn my work and prove me wrong.


So these peers who are reviewing my work will try and find errors in my methodology, or in my analysis of the data.  Some will build vacuum tubes of their own and drop their own ball-bearings and car keys and Buick Skylarks, just to see if they can get different results from the ones I got.  They will try their damnedest to show I am a fraud and a huckster and a bad scientists by trying to find something.... anything.... with my research.


And if they do, I go back to step one and start all over from the beginning.


On the other hand, and this is important, if my conclusions survive the process, then the hypothesis will be considered valid.  Now, it still won't be a theory.  Its still just a hypothesis; one that most people think is true, but it still needs further experimentation and observation to try and refine the idea, to make it even better and even more accurate.  And even after decades of research, when my hypothesis is still accepted as a theory, it will still be subject to testing and observation.


And if, at any point, even centuries after my idea has been accepted by the world in general as true, someone discovers that no, its not true after all, my theory will be abandoned for the new one.  This is how the scientific method works.  This is why no scientist worth the name ever claims to have all the answers or the definitive truth or the unquestionable truth.  Because something can always come along later on and force us to rethink our theories.


As Maya Angelou says, "We do better when we know better."  That's the very guideline by which science works.


The fact that scientists occasionally prove themselves wrong and change their mind isn't a weakness.  On the contrary, its the greatest strength of scientific inquiry:  when you have new information that changes old ideas, you change the idea to fit the new information.  You don't ignore the new information that overturns the old idea... that's how religion works, not science.


People who are familiar with science and how science works understand that we don't know everything.  We can't know everything; new things to learn are always out there.  The world would be a boring, boring place if we knew everything there was to know, and we'd no longer need science if we did. The real challenge and joy of science is that there is always something new to learn, new hypotheses to test, new conclusions to draw.


Science is a never ending pursuit to find better answers to how the world we live in works.  That's all it is.  There is no absolute truth.  The uneducated and overly-religious see this as a sign that science is not to be trusted.


This just shows how ignorant they truly are.

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