For it to work we have to work together
Scientific evidence directs acceptance or rejection of hypotheses. At the experimental level, this requires evidence. At the societal level, this requires faith.
Photo by Naassom Azevedo on Unsplash I didn’t know what science was . . . what science really was . . . until the second year of PhD school. At that time I had already been in college for and had taken many courses about science, math, biology, and physics. ten years But I still didn’t get it. I was still stuck, like most of us, in my childhood definition of what science was. I was taught in middle school and then sort of took it from there. I never really ‘got it’. And most of us don’t. But we need to ‘get it’. And there are at least two reasons why we need to learn what science really is and does: We, to at least some degree, rely on science to show us the ‘ truth’. And while that may be a big ask, science is a pretty good tool for helping us understand things. We insist on either denying or embracing science as a means of supporting our own position or refuting other people’s position. And there’s a lot of screwing up going on with this one. Bear with me while I briefly summarize what it took me over a decade to learn. Science is a standardized way of asking questions that can be used to generate evidence about the question and applied fairly universally by anyone willing to follow the method. Science is really just a method. A tool. A structure. To standardize how we think and answer questions. This way we all follow the same rules and can trust others do the same — so we have a basis for mutual understanding. Now, the way science does this is actually kind of weird. This will be exceptionally oversimplified for what I hope are obvious reasons. To ‘do science’, we: Ask a question. Formalize the question in to ‘testable hypotheses’ to translate human language into statistical language. Testable hypotheses mean you predict what will happen when you apply a treatment to your subject of interest. Either this treatment will have an effect or it won’t. Design an experiment to collect a sample of data from the real population of interest. Experiments translate the complexities of the world into the simplicity of numbers. Analyze the data (the numbers) using statistics or other forms of mathematics to ‘test’ the hypothesis. Translate your numbers back into meaningful human language. Either the numbers/data support your hypothesis (fail to reject), or do not support your hypothesis (reject) and suggest that your potential explanation of the question has no basis in reality based on the way you designed your experiment. After a successful run of a single scientific effort you have now produced a single piece of scientific evidence. And here’s where the faith comes in. Is this one piece of evidence enough to make everyone believe it is correct? Is this the ‘truth’? Is this now a ‘fact’? Of course not. And we all have probably heard about replication. Doing the same experiment over and over again will generate additional pieces of evidence either supporting or refuting your original findings. I picture evidence as being pieces of gravel, and the machine of science is like a conveyor belt. Each scientist puts their piece of gravel on the conveyor belt of a given experiment or question. These pieces are then carried to a pile. As the pile of evidence gets bigger and bigger, our ability or willingness to believe or accept the evidence increases. This is how the faith part of science works. Photo by Max Panamá on Unsplash Some of us don’t require a big pile of rocks to believe something or accept it as fact. We have faith. Some of us will never believe what you say no matter how high the pile of rocks gets. We do not have faith. We also have to have faith in the scientists themselves, or even better, the capacity to decide for ourselves if the actual science is any good. Without our individual belief in a result, there can be no concensus. And concensus is what gives science meaning. It’s not the experimenter. It’s not a university. It’s not a giant corporation. It’s you. And me. Let’s use Climate Change as an example. Question — Does industrialization increase global temperature? Hypothesis — If increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are causing global temperatures to increase then humans are responsible for climate change because industrialization introduced more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the planet produces. The experiments are a little weird, and the math a little weak, because there is only 1 earth and we cannot replicate. But creative things have been done and multiple lines of evidence suggest that industrialization creates more carbon dioxide which leads to higher temperatures. Based on the numbers, we generated that verbiage. So the individual experiments support the hypothesis. But is it enough evidence for us all? Obviously not. And this is where the system breaks down. Or doesn’t, depending on how you look at it. Again, it’s up to YOU and ME. To ‘do science’. And we all have our biases, which is why it requires a concensus of people. But part of our job is to at least try to be less biased. If we lead with our political, religious, or personal position then we are not doing our part to consider the evidence. We are NOT considering the evidence. And there’s the rub. Science is only as good as the society which it serves. It is not magic. It is not mumbo-jumbo. It really isn’t even that powerful. It’s a tool. Whether it serves it’s purpose is up to us. Our honesty. Our integrity. Our faith. In ourselves. And each other.