Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Nature of Science

Science is far more than the collection of facts and data that is often presented as "science" in classrooms; it is the process that is used to gather the information that is then presented as science - it is how we discover that collection of facts and data. Not everything can be studied using science (for example, it has to be "falsifiable" - you can't prove that there are no mermaids in the ocean. How would you set up that particular experiment?), and not all scientific knowledge is given equal weight (which is why we use terms like facts, hypotheses, laws, and theories - check out my post here explaining these terms), but the information that does result from doing science gives us verifiable, evidence-based information.  

Students are often given the impression that the "scientific method" is a step-wise checklist of procedures, but the scientific method is actually considerably more flexible. In general, there are three aspects to the scientific method. The first is to ask a question and guess (hypothesize) what will happen, the second is to test the hypothesis, and the third is to draw your conclusions and publish your results. This method is very flexible, allowing for different types of research to be conducted, as long as it is done using proper methods.

Arguably the most important part of this process is publication. Scientists publish in what are called peer-reviewed journals. When they submit an article, which the scientist has to pay for, the article is then sent to several specialists in the field for critical review. Often the articles are rejected because of flaws in logic or experimental design, some are sent back for revision, and others are accepted. All of the articles have to be written in a specific way that includes background information, a detailed description of the experimental design, the raw data, the conclusions, and then possible implications or extensions of the conclusions. Additionally, these articles are often presented at conferences to other scientists who specialize in that field, many of whom will undoubtedly question the results. Both sets of presentation (journal and conference) lead to debate, discussion, criticism, and scrutiny.

The reason why some argue that this is the most important component of the scientific method is because it allows science to self-correct. Imagine hundreds of other scientists who specialize in your field, all competing for grant money to pay for lab equipment and personnel. Your job is to conduct experiments and publish in credible and competitive scientific journals. You are constantly searching for a new idea to research, a new angle to approach, a more precise method of analysis, a generally-accepted idea that you can disprove, or brand new way of thinking. At the same time, you are both working with and competing against individuals who are doing the same thing. With each new publication or presentation, you are essentially handing out your research to experts who would be happy to prove you wrong. Methodology is criticized and conclusions questioned. Eventually, the poorly flawed experiments, either in design or conclusion, are weeded out.

This process is a strong selective pressure to favor experiments that are done correctly and that are consistent with the results of other good experiments. Studies that don’t make sense, are done inaccurately, or that are logically inconsistent with other experiments are not given much credibility, whereas those that are rigorous, accurate, and consistent are held in high esteem. Publications that receive the most recognition are those that, while both rigorous and accurate, counter previously accepted ideas. These are the “ground-breaking” scientific discoveries that we often hear of in non-scientific journals (i.e. health reporting, general news stories, etc.). Many believe that these commonly-reported studies make up the bulk of scientific discovery, and the oft-heard refrain is that scientists are constantly changing their minds, that each new study contradicts the previous one. While these criticisms are accurate in that studies do not always agree, any criticism of the experiments must take into account methodology and the actual results as opposed to the summarized version that declares a "miracle cure" in its headline.

Additionally, any disagreement may not be at the level of detail that is often assumed. I've heard friends tell me, “Well, I've heard that scientists disagree about evolution.” Well, yes, but they aren't disagreeing about whether or not it happened. They’re disagreeing about a particular mechanism of evolution, like whether or not a particular mutation on one part of a gene would increase overall rates of evolution. To the scientists, the disagreements are on a different level of detail. To the layman, it’s kind of like walking into a room and catching a conversation in the middle: you might think you know what they’re talking about, but there’s a good chance you've missed something important.

The process of science is a culmination of countless research that has gone on and will continue to go on, and scientists are the first to admit that the current body of accepted knowledge is constantly changing. They are directly involved in this process and know that experiments have to be replicated before they are accepted and that each experiment is subject to intense criticism. When non-scientists criticize scientists for their “blind acceptance” of a scientific concept, I only shows that they don't understand the scientific process itself.

One of the greatest strengths of science its ability to change with new or better data. Scientists readily admit that what we may accept as fact today may very well be questioned tomorrow if we get new evidence. But we also don't use this as an excuse to refuse to draw conclusions about the evidence we do have; we know quite a bit, and it's perfectly reasonable to draw conclusions from what we do know while admitting that what we know may change. As a result, science is constantly improving: it becomes more accurate and more complete with each new discovery. 

Those who are pursue science as a field do so because they are naturally curious, tend toward analytical thinking, and prefer evidence over conjecture. They tend to question authority and think independently; they have to in order to make any progress in the field. Many scientists are religious, but they understand that their religious and spiritual beliefs are largely independent of their study of science, though I believe many would argue that they find the process of doing science a spiritual one.

Some believe that scientists and science in general are part of a grand conspiracy to undermine religion or certain political ideals. James Lawrence Powell put it perfectly:
Scientists….show no evidence of being more interested in politics or ideology than the average American. Does it make sense to believe that tens of thousands of scientists would be so deeply and secretly committed to bringing down capitalism and the American way of life that they would spend years beyond their undergraduate degrees working to receive master’s and Ph.D. degrees, then go to work in a government laboratory or university, plying the deep oceans, forbidding deserts, icy poles, and torrid jungles, all for far less money than they could have made in industry, all the while biding their time like a Russian sleeper agent in an old spy novel? Scientists tend to be independent and resist authority. That is why you are apt to find them in the laboratory or in the field, as far as possible from the prying eyes of a supervisor. Anyone who believes he could organize thousands of scientists into a conspiracy has never attended a single faculty meeting. [1]
Many are willing to vilify science as a field without understanding the foundations of what it is or what it means to be a scientist. Science doesn't seek to disprove God, and scientists aren't a group of atheists trying to turn the world into a materialistic, amoral system. Science is merely the study of the natural world using objective information. If you believe science is a threat to your beliefs, then you must also believe that the natural world is somehow be able to disprove your beliefs, which suggests your beliefs are considerably more precarious than you are willing to admit. How could God's own creation disprove him?

It can't. It can only reveal our own flaws in our understanding of who he is.

[1] James Lawrence Powell. The Inquisition of Climate Science, Columbia University Press, New York, 2011, pg. 187

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