What is Science?

This is a long post about the philosophy of science. I probably should have written this one a long time ago, but here it is. 

During the pandemic, we’ve often heard scientists and commentators say “I’m just following the science.”  Confusingly, we’ve heard people on all sides of the issues say this, pro-maskers, anti-maskers, vaccine fans, vaccine detractors, people who love Hydroxychloroquine, and those who think it kills people.  Very often, when people have used the word “science” in the last year, they’ve used it in a way that you DIDN’T learn in high school biology class (thanks, Mr. Walker!).  So what do people mean when they say this, and how can you evaluate what they are saying?

When you hear the word “science” on the news or in discussions on the pandemic, other definitions are often smuggled in. I’ll give you a few different ways people use the word “science”, and then I’ll talk about how you can evaluate science related discussions.

1) In actuality, science is a method for measuring things in the natural world, and using reasoning and the scientific method to make, falsify, and confirm hypotheses about natural things.  Science has been phenomenally successful at describing aspects of the natural world, as well as producing useful applications for communication, travel, health, manufacturing, the arts, and nearly every conceivable human endeavor.  The incredible success of science has given it enormous cultural power as well, and many ascribe to it powers that it does not have. By definition, science measures and describes the natural world, but cannot describe many common aspects of reality, questions like “what is justice?” or “what is the meaning of life?”. 

While many contributed to the Scientific Method, the steps were formalized by Francis Bacon.  The steps include 1) the formulation of a question, 2) the development of a hypothesis, or a guess about what actually happening, 3) a prediction about what impact the hypothesis may have on a system, 4) doing experiments to test the hypothesis, and last 5) analyzing results, to include falsifying or confirming the hypothesis and forming a new question.

The scientific process is not a slow gradual accumulation of truth.  It’s often ugly, with long searches down the wrong path before finding the right one. Fields can experience sudden, jerky changes in direction.

2) The collection of facts currently believed by the majority of scientists.  When many in our current culture use the word “science”, this is what they mean. The phrase “settled science” often refers to this.  But scientific truth is not decided by a vote.  Yes, if a “fact” is believed by most scientists, it’s more likely to be true, but science history is full of people who had “weird” ideas that later turned out to be right.  By definition, topics under current study are not well understood, and there can be widely varying opinions about what’s going on. 

It’s always OK for a scientist to question current thought.  Trust me when I say that having a PhD does not mean that other scientists have to believe you.  I’ve heard shouting matches at conferences over what to believe about seemingly simple things.  

Real “Truth” transcends opinion.  Things are true whether you believe them or not. Science is the search for the truth about the natural world, not the search for ways to force your view on others.

Which leads to…

3) The collection of facts currently believed by scientists who agree with me.  When things are murky and not well understood, which is quite often in active fields, there can be 2 or more models of how a system is working. Sometimes the evidence that is out in the world can appear to be contradictory. This may be because some of the evidence is wrong, or because conclusions based on the evidence is wrong, or because a crucial piece of evidence is still missing, or because the system is just more complicated than anyone is aware of. At this point, a good scientist will try and rethink the available evidence or perhaps design a new experiment to try and get at something still unknown.  Instead, some people, even good scientists in a moment of weakness, will simply declare that their view is correct prematurely.  Scientists must always seek to be more persuasive, and not just shout louder.

4) The collection of facts currently believed by me, right now.  This definition is common for those who believe an outlier view.  It’s not bad to have a view that is outside the current orthodoxy, this is how scientific breakthroughs happen, but a person in this position must seek even more to persuade with evidence, not just be dogmatic.  Do more internet work, read more literature, or design another experiment.

5) An atheistic worldview, as in “I believe science”. Science is great at discovering information about the natural world, but it can’t answer the big questions. What some call “science” in this way is really “naturalism”, the belief that only matter and energy exists. It rejects any worldview that includes a transcendent or supernatural component. Science alone does not support this worldview, because by definition, science can’t “prove” the non-existence of things outside the known universe. Other philosophical structures are necessary to support this view.

So how do you figure out what’s really true about a scientific opinion being presented.  This can be difficult, but it can be a little easier to figure out if someone is abusing “science.” Here are some clues that science might be being misused.  You’ll have to dig deeper to be sure:

  1. A real scientific argument includes a conclusion supported by evidence.  Does the person talking give any evidence for their position? Often, people just make an assertion, a claim without evidence.  This is OK if they can back it up, but very often they can’t.  Ask “can you clarify that?” or “how did you come to that conclusion?”
  2. When questioned, a person should have evidence for their claim. If instead they call you anti-science, or *phobic or *ist, then they are abusing science.
  3. If a story or comment starts with “X person is brilliant and has been in the business for years”, this is often a red flag for me.  While a person’s qualifications are important, they must still present evidence.  A title or degree is not enough for them to be automatically believed.  The more glowing the terms used to describe a source, the more I’m suspicious that they are about to spout nonsense.
    Yes, these even applies to me.  If you tell someone “This Facebook friend of mine is a real scientist and he says <something really smart>”, you should rightfully expect your friend to ask what evidence I had for my claim. If you don’t know, then re-read my post, or just message me!  I’m happy to work through it with you, and I’ll tell you outright if I’m just speculating.
  4. News articles are OK, but they are only a starting place.  If a person references a news article, they still have homework. What news outlet? What evidence did the author use? Journalists often misunderstand or misrepresent information from scientific sources.
  5. Real evidence can be a scientific paper, a study learned about on the radio (who presented it?), or a comment by an authoritative source (who is the source?).  Each of these can in principle still be wrong, but they have more weight than other sources.
  6. Often, we gain knowledge about the world from someone we trust, an authority on the matter.  This is a fine way to learn things. Your parents were the first authority that you used for learning much of what you needed to know.  But authorities, even good ones, are not always right.  You learned this about your parents when you were a teenager. It’s OK to pick someone you trust as an authority on scientific matters, but still don’t believe everything you hear.  The CDC, the WHO, Dr. Fauci, the President (either one), yes even me, have been right about some things and wrong about some things during COVID. During an evolving situation, expect opinions and “facts” to change as more information is gathered.  Your favorite authority doesn’t know everything.

Of course, the debate on several COVID related topics have become politicized, which can make it difficult for scientists to do good work, and often VERY difficult for lay people to know the truth. I feel for you. It can be really difficult for folks to figure out what’s true about something that’s not in their field.  I feel the same way about climate change, an important topic of frequent debate that’s not in my field.  Don’t feel dumb if you have trouble figuring out what’s going on.  Lots of folks are abusing science, trying to make you agree with them.  Hopefully I’ve given you a few tips on how to discover the truth.  Here’s an article on how to communicate scientific things!

Don’t fear, but be smart,


5 thoughts on “What is Science?

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