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Science Me: Ask Better Questions

Science is more than test tubes and lab coats and Einstein's bad hair day. It's actually a way of thinking used to systematically decode the natural world.

The first scientists were actually philosophers, who tried to understand the universe without any technology at their disposal. They laid down the guiding principles of scientia, which are now known as the Four Canons of Science:

Scientific Canon #1. Empiricism

Empirical data collection allows us to draw reliable conclusions about objective reality

Empirical data collection allows us to draw reliable conclusions about objective reality.

As well as the bald one on Lost, John Locke was a 17th century philosopher and the father of empiricism: the idea that truth comes from measurable experience.

We gain experience through our senses, which for most of history set hard limits on what we could actually detect and conclude about the universe.

Today, technology extends our measurable experience, giving us astonishing data-gathering capacity.

Think microscopes, mass spectrometry, and MRI machines. Technology allows us to probe reality at unimaginable scales, such that we can now see viruses, DNA, and even individual atoms.

The Large Hadron Collider smacks together subatomic particles like protons and neutrons, and analyses the debris of smaller particles still. Locke would be overjoyed by the sheer breadth and depth of empirical data we generate today.

What's more, technology delivers objective data. It's altogether more precise, scalable, and reliable than information obtained by our subjective senses.

Empiricism is so critical to the scientific method that we must be sceptical of claims we can't repeatedly test and measure, like ghosts, mediumship, and telepathy. If they're not reliably detectable, they fall into the domain of belief.

Scientific Canon #2. Falsifiability

If an idea isn't falsifiable, it's a scientific cul-de-sac and should be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism

If an idea isn't falsifiable, it's a scientific cul-de-sac and should be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Scientists love a good experiment. But before we go controlling variables and gathering data, we need to specify exactly what it is we're trying to find out. Thus, the need for a hypothesis.

A hypothesis is a testable idea that guides our exploration of the natural world. It sets out a specific claim to be proven valid or invalid through experiment or observation.

Falsifiability means that if a claim is false, it's within our means to disprove it.

While many ancient cultures believed the Earth was flat, the ancient Greek mathematician, Eratosthenes, was sceptical. He designed a cunning experiment to measure the shape of the Earth indirectly using shadows and maths.

This was more than 2,000 years ago. Eratosthenes not only disproved the Flat Earth hypothesis, but calculated the circumference and axial tilt with remarkable accuracy. And it all began with a falsifiable hypothesis.

Scientific Canon #3. Parsimony

Parsimony means explaining complex observations with the most succinct, logical solution

Parsimonious solutions are logical and fit with our observations of reality.

Human beings are creative storytellers. We're capable of leaping from one fantasy to another to explain, entertain, and elucidate. But most of science is about making small, incremental discoveries based on existing theories and empirical observation.

Parsimony means being economical with our creative assumptions. It keeps our thinking within the bounds of logic and probability.

Conspiracy theories—technically conspiracy hypotheses because they're unsupported by evidence—tend to be rather extravagant in their assumptions. That's not to say conspiracies don't exist, but in many cases there are simply better explanations available.

Parsimony is often misunderstood to mean the simplest explanation will do. But Einstein's theories of relativity aren't simple. Neither is Darwin and Wallace's evolution by natural selection.

Instead, parsimony means explaining complex observations with the most succinct and reasonable explanation based on the evidence at hand. The most parsimonious theories also tend to have the greatest predictive power.

Scientific Canon #4. Determinism

Determinism means our lives are bound by cause and effect

Determinism means our lives are bound by cause and effect.

The natural world as we observe it is a complex web of cause and effect. From the centrifugal forces that shape galaxies, to the molecular interactions between neurotransmitters in your brain.

Ultimately, the principle of determinism renders fate, karma, and even free will moot.

Scientific reductionism strives to analyse phenomena in terms of fundamental cause and effect. Once the equation is balanced, there's no need to continue loading it up with untestable hypotheses like fate or angelic intervention.

Now, physicists might raise a flag here. While classical physics has long suggested we live in a clockwork universe, quantum physics points to random events at the level of fundamental particles.

This is the problem that haunted Einstein. How can reality be both deterministic and random at the same time? The science is yet to be resolved.

The conflicting evidence means we're missing some critical clue. A clue that will lead us to a parsimonious, perhaps unified, theory. Until then, we just don't have enough pieces of the puzzle. Has anyone tried looking under the couch?

Aside from this quantum caveat, determinism is a solid principle to guide our everyday science. It serves us well across all other disciplines, enabling accurate predictions about the world from solar eclipses to social dynamics.

"Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." - Carl Sagan

The four canons of science tell us to measure the world, correlate our findings logically, and wrangle with causality. We must examine our collective theories, pull them apart, and try to prove them wrong until we're satisfied we have the best explanation available.

Then we can make more precise predictions, gather more data, and hone in on the truth with increasing specificity. Existing theories can be updated and even overhauled in the light of new evidence. It's a continual error-checking process.

Our scientific knowledge will never be complete. Not in the lifetime of our species nor, hopefully, ever. To understand absolutely everything about the universe would mark the end of curiosity.

And this is what drives science—the never-ending mystery of life. We can delight in the incremental rewards, the glimpses of deeper truth, each discovery bringing new insights into the beautiful and astonishing system we call nature.

Rebecca Casale Author Bio

Rebecca Casale is a science blogger based in Auckland. If you like her content, please share it with your friends. If you don't like it, why not punish your enemies by sharing it with them?