First things first I need to declare that I am indeed one of those long haired, lab coat wearing boffins known as a scientist. I have always been a scientist even before I actually got to wear the coat. From a very young age I wanted to know things, I wanted to figure things out and I wanted to use that knowledge to build wicked stuff (I’ve still not entirely fulfilled my childhood dream of building my own spaceship but we’ll see…). I do accept however that I am in the minority. Most people don’t like studying science whether it’s because they find it hard or boring or perhaps just have a penchant for something else. But there is a problem with this that I have come to notice over my (admittedly short) career, whilst its absolutely fine if people don’t want to be scientists most people don’t even know what science is. And that as we shall see is like being a sailor whose doesn’t recognise the water beneath him…
It should be self evident to anyone reading this blog that we live in a technologically developed world. I’m touching a variety of pressure sensors that are converting that pattern into a digital code that is then represented on my screen as words and images. That code can be distributed on the interwebz for all to enjoy. Our lives are an expression of an ocean of knowledge that has been painstakingly gathered and built upon over thousands of years. There’s little I can point to in my life or the lives of anyone I know that hasn’t been affected by science and technology. This brings us neatly to our first question “what’s science and whose technology?”
The broad definition of science that most people might say is that it is a process of gathering facts about the world. A more accurate definition though would be that science uses empirical reasoning to build predictive models about the world; it’s all about model building. Empirical reasoning in science simply put goes observation – hypothesis – experimentation – conclude. We observe natural phenomenon, we develop a hypothesis about how it occurs (what in colloquial terms may be called a ‘theory’ or ‘idea’), we then test this hypothesis and from that we make a conclusion. Technology is the application of the understanding drawn from these models. We build shiny machines and funny sounding chemicals that run on the principles we have discovered to perform tasks that we find desirable.
What makes science so different? Sometimes in life truths are rather unpalatable for us humans. Whether it’s finding out that the Earth doesn’t revolve around us, that we are indeed related to other animals or that yes our bum does look big in this there is a plethora of things about the world that many might not like. But whether or not you like an answer has no veracity on its truth. Whilst this seems obvious it’s a statement I often see disregarded; just watch Fox News or read the Daily Mail and you’re bound to be bombarded with ideas like climate change is a conspiracy, vaccines cause disease and that its only ‘fair’ to teach fundamentalist religion in school science classes as a matter of ‘balance’.
In science no answer, no matter how devastating to our world view, is disregarded or accepted on the basis of what it is. The only reason to accept anything in science is that it has evidence for it no matter what it is. Science isn’t about what people think or what people reckon based on personal experience or anecdotes they’ve read about, it is about demonstrable truth through good, repeatable unbiased experimentation. This doesn’t mean that I go and do some experiments then just tell you the answer, other scientists will repeat my work over and over to see if the results are correct, to see if my method was flawed or to see if the results I obtained do not match the conclusions I have made. Nobody’s word is taken as gospel in the scientific community, something is considered to be true only when it has been demonstrated time and again by other experts in the field. This is the peer review process and I will go into it in more detail in another post.
So why is it important that everybody understands how science works? We all rely on the fruits of its labour to survive and flourish; in the developed world we live in a Garden of Eden where we suffer little threat from parasites, predators, natural disasters and where food and water are plentiful. All this is a product of science and technology but don’t take it as a constant! There are people in this world who have little interest in truth, merely agenda. It is because of these people that we all must have a fair understanding of how science works, if we don’t then how can we know what to do about issues such as climate change, pandemics and so on? A scientifically illiterate person has no immunity to the bullshit and propaganda that surround us like wolves beyond the campfire. How can the public know whether it’s right to teach evolution or creationism? To vaccinate or not? These are issues that I will address in further depth later on, until then I hope I’ve sparked a curiosity and shed a little more light on what exactly this ruddy ‘science’ thing actually is.