Science Me | Don't Seek Answers... Seek Better Questions

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Viruses: Genes Gone Rogue

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Civilisation developed over the past 10,000 years, aka the Holocene. Climate-wise, it was among the most stable periods in Earth's four-billion-year history... Read more


What is Science?

Science is about more than test tubes and lab coats and Einstein's bad hair day. It's a way of thinking that can be applied to anything we observe in the natural world. And it all began with philosophers—the original scientists—laying down some guiding principles known as the four canons of science.

Canon #1. Empiricism

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

We gain experience of the world through our senses, which technology extends to give us astonishing data-gathering capacity. Think microscopes, MRI machines, and malware detection software. From all this input, we can build a reliable framework of objective reality, and debunk claims which are evidently bogus.

Empirical knowledge comes from observation and measurement

Empirical knowledge comes from observation and measurement.

Even empirical measurements must be scrutinised and replicated at scale to eliminate bias and anomalies. We can't draw definitive conclusions from a single experiment; any weakness in sampling or methodology or statistical analysis can botch the whole conclusion. So we repeat experiments with different approaches to gradually hone in on the truth.

Science is necessarily sceptical of claims we can't repeatedly experience and measure, such as the afterlife, mediumship, and telepathy. If they're not reliably detectable, they fall into the domain of personal belief.

Canon #2. Falsifiability

Our systematic data collection leads us to observations we can put into words, like "The planets and moons in the night sky appear spherical." We then make a prediction from this data, like "If other planets are spheres, then Earth is also sphere, because Earth is a planet."

A hypothesis is a tentative idea that can guide our exploration of truth. As such, it should be falsifiable: if it's wrong, it's within our means to disprove and discount it.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Eratosthenes, performed a famous experiment investigating the shape and size of the Earth using shadows and maths. Not only did he falsify the flat Earth hypothesis, but his results were accurate enough to predict the circumference of our spherical planet. But we needed that falsifiable idea to begin with.

Scientific hypotheses should be falsifiable

Scientific hypotheses should be falsifiable.

In most cases, if an idea isn't falsifiable, it's a scientific cul-de-sac and should be regarded with a healthy dose of scepticism.

But there are exceptions to Karl Popper's falsification principle. Take physics, which sometimes has to deal with extreme scales (I'm thinking cosmic inflation or string theory). They don't roll with the canon of testability. We can't disprove them if they breach the limits of direct or indirect perception.

It gets messier when we consider that inherited knowledge can later turn out to be incomplete. There's a risk of valid but incomplete ideas being falsified because they're chinked by new data. Such false negatives can have us chasing our own tails, reminding us that scientific discovery isn't always straightforward.

For the most part, however, falsifiability is a useful principle across most sciences because it helps us distinguish between workable hypotheses and straight-up ideologies.

Canon #3. Parsimony

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 pre-existing logic, which brings us to the principle of parsimony.

Parsimony means being economical with our creative assumptions. It tells us to keep our thinking within the bounds of logic and probability.

Otherwise, we run away with our imaginations. One particularly wild conspiracy theory on social media is that viruses don't exist. It's a whopping divergence from reality, denying decades of hard genetic, clinical, and epidemiological evidence of viruses. Not to mention the growing number of vaccine and gene therapy technologies that leverage them.

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

Parsimonious solutions are succinct and logical.

Parsimony is the foundation of Occam's Razor, the philosophical principle wielded relentlessly by Sir William of Occam to counter the logic of his contemporaries. Don't make more assumptions than absolutely necessary. Closely aligned with critical thinking, we see it leveraged in philosophy, medical diagnosis, and the development of theoretical models.

Parsimony doesn't mean that the simplest explanation will do. Relativity isn't simple. Neither is evolution by natural selection. Parsimony means explaining complex observations with the most succinct, logical solution. The broader the scope and predictive power of your solution, the more likely you'll go down in history for it.

Canon #4. Determinism

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.

The principle of determinism crushes ideas like fate, karma, and even free will. The predictable laws of cause and effect are breached by summoning superfluous, unknown causes for what we can already explain.

Determinism means our lives are bound by cause and effect

Determinism means our lives are bound by cause and effect.

Yet, once again, as we test this principle at the quantum scale, it falls apart. While classical physics provides a pile of evidence for a clockwork universe, quantum physics offers conflicting evidence for a probabilistic universe. Where true randomness occurs at the level of fundamental particles.

How can the two co-exist? This is the problem that haunted Einstein. And it's yet to be resolved.

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

Aside from this whopper quantum caveat, determinism is a solid principle to guide our everyday science. It has served us well for an awfully long time, allowing accurate predictions ranging from solar eclipses to SpaceX launches to social dynamics.

Together, the four canons of science drive the discoveries and technologies that are critical to society today. Energy, water supply, agriculture, transport, medicine, communication, computing, and so much more are all driven by this style of thought.

Just imagine your day without the inventions of science. You wouldn't get very far—unless of course, you currently thrive semi-naked in the wilderness. For narrative purposes I'm assuming you don't.

But if science is so cool and powerful and awesome, why is it under attack today? Heads up. Here comes a hypothesis.

Science is Widely Misunderstood

Many people believe that science is rigid and unyielding. Can you blame them? I just laid out some highly restrictive rules on how to science, rejecting tightly-held notions of faith and free will in the process.

That's a tough pill to swallow if you want to get on board with science. In fact, plenty of scientists don't apply the four canons to their personal beliefs, setting them aside entirely from scientific scrutiny.

After all, human beings are tragically flawed creatures. Sometimes we need fantastical worldviews just to give us hope, which includes philosophies of life which are just too big for science to tackle given the limitations of our toolkit.

There's a line between scientific knowledge and personal beliefs, and we can't seem to agree on where that is. The pandemic illustrates this in an explosive way. While science tells us that lockdowns and vaccinations are necessary to reduce the collective death toll, it cuts into our personal beliefs about government, trust, and individual freedom.

Personal beliefs breathe diversity into human culture. Yet they also threaten to eclipse our collective knowledge of scientific facts. Naturally, scientists defend their territory. And they do so with the following argument.

The scientific method gives rise to knowledge that can be broadened, deepened, or even overhauled in the light of stronger evidence. Science yields to observation and logic. It's iterative and progressive. When followed correctly, science embraces new information, honing-in on objective truth with increasing specificity.

By definition, belief is the commitment to an idea without proof. There's nothing inherently wrong with this. Elon Musk believes it's possible for humans to thrive on Mars. But we won't really know if this is true until we get there and overcome the many physical, social, and psychological challenges to survival. In the big picture, beliefs are important to scientists and non-scientists alike.

But there's trouble in the overlap. When science tackles an element of nature, it seeks multiple lines of data and fits them into a theory. A theory that not only explains the phenomenon—but also makes testable predictions about it.

The peer review process allows others to critique methodologies and conclusions. It's a fierce error-checking process, leveraging collective intelligence and experience so our scientific knowledge can evolve.

This puts religion in quite a pickle. Take the belief that the Earth is 6,000 years old. For a long time, this was the inherited wisdom. But today, this belief requires us to reject thousands of lines of archaeological, geological, and genetic evidence to the contrary.

The scientific method wasn't developed in order to tear down religion. But that's the effect it can have, by systematically measuring, contemplating, and testing the natural world.

There are plenty more claims outside of religion that wither under scientific scrutiny. Take the modern onslaught of digital misinformation. Or an argument with a friend about who's in the wrong. The scientific eye applies a lens of logic, allowing us to identify and call out bad arguments:

  • The Strawman Argument - deliberately misrepresents competing claims so they're easy to falsify.
  • The Appeal to Ignorance - argues a claim is true simply because it hasn't been proven wrong.
  • The False Dichotomy - polarises the debate into black-and-white terms, when the truth is more nuanced.
  • The Slippery Slope - irrationally and negatively assumes a benign act will always lead to disaster.
  • The Circular Argument - illogically uses the same claim as both its premise and conclusion.

Fortunately, the scientific approach provides a logical framework, so we can test dubious claims and avoid being misled. Even in everyday life, we can use the scientific mindset to wrangle with everything, pull it apart, and try to prove it wrong. Do it now with this claim. See? You're already sciencing.

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

Becky Casale is the creator of Science Me. If you like her content, please take a hot second to share it with your favourite people. If you don't like it, why not punish your enemies by sharing it with them?