Basic Primer on Science and the Scientific Process

>> Sunday, April 7, 2013

I've already run into some pretty screwed up notions about science. I'm not saying Christians are the only ones who have them - there might be any number of people out there who don't understand the basics of the scientific process and science in general - but, so far, the ones I've found least likely to even listen to what the situation really is happen to be religious "nuts." Note that "nuts" doesn't describe all religious people, not by even a large margin. I think most church-goers are perfectly reasonable people who understand what's important in their lives, use their various religious teachings to help themselves be better people and manage to do so without forgoing independent thought.

But I get very frustrated trying to speak with people for whom facts, data and logic mean nothing. And they are the ones most vociferous that scientists want to be gods and the ones with the very least understanding of what science is.

What is science and the scientific process? Explaining observed conditions in a systematic way.

What that means is that first and last, there's data. No data, no science. Data could be observed conditions (weather, climate, astronomy, living things in the wild). Data could be the results experimentation, like noting what happens when something is fertilized or dropped from a height and dragged along a rough surface.

Why data first? Because the first step in science is trying to formulate explanations for what data you have. Each potential explanation (called hypothesis) must fit the available data. That does not mean that every data point is explained by the hypothesis, but it does mean that none of the data negates or makes the hypothesis impossible. Data that doesn't fit is not ignored but set aside to either look for other explanations (hopefully ones that mesh with the other working hypotheses) or more data that might link it all together.

The next step is to take a working hypotheses and try to validate it, show that it's the right explanation. Again, this is done through data, either more observed information or experimentation. If increasing amounts of data stop supporting the hypothesis (i.e. the data that doesn't fit starts to be significant) or if a single hard fact negates it, the hypothesis is discounted and other hypotheses are pursued.

When a sufficient quantity and quality of verifiable data supports a hypothesis, it becomes a theory. Some theories have such an overwhelming preponderance of data (and no other competing theory) that scientists stop looking for alternate explanations but seek to refine the existing theory, treating it as effectively fact, even if every aspect of it isn't yet understood. Examples of this include plate tectonics and evolution. Yet, even the strongest theories can conceivably be derailed by a single incontrovertible fact. Usually, however, well regarded and broadly accepted theories are not derailed because, to become that way, they have been picked apart, and experimented with and challenged with exceeding rigor.

What's a fact? It's an observation or an experimental result that is (a) verifiable and (b) repeatable. If Dr. Strangelove says he had a huge scientific breakthrough but no one else saw or measured it and/or no one else (preferably outside his lab) can reproduce the result, it's not a fact. Anything Dr. Strangelove postulates based on this spurious result is going to be treated very skeptically by scientists until other independently verified data is found that supports it.

A fact is not something someone wrote down in history, per se, unless there is objective evidence to support that assertion. For example, if someone in some period of time claimed there was an eclipse and astronomy calculation indicated an eclipse would have indeed happened about that time, it would be considered factual. If someone said there was huge volcanic eruption at some point in time and some particular location, but there is no evidence of it in the archaeology or geology of the area, other explanations (including an error on the part of the recorder) would be looked for. That doesn't mean it would be considered nonsense unless there were strong counterindications, but without corroborative evidence, it would be considered speculative rather than factual.

That doesn't necessarily mean that the recorder was lying. They could be describing a previously unknown phenomena in terms they understand, like Aristotle assuming previously dried up ponds could spontaneously create life when refilled with water or that heavier objects were subject to greater gravitational acceleration than lighter ones. His measurement and observational tools were insufficient to allow him to get the full story. As tools become more precise or complete and more data is gathered, science moves forward, sometimes adapting original theories to the new data, sometimes discarding it when it fails to live up to the new data.

What is NOT science?

Starting with a premise and trying to prove it's so, discarding anything that doesn't agree with the beginning premise or negates it. This is not science and scientists don't do it. Even if some scientists along the way fall into the trap of ignoring data that doesn't agree, other scientists will find out and correct the situation. That is bad science and scientists are well aware of the trust they have been given and won't knowingly condone such actions.

I have to add the irony (or more accurately the hypocrisy) that the folks mostly likely to level this accusation are usually the same ones trying to promote a "scientific theory" based on an assertion made in some religious text or another that either has no scientific basis (other than the text) or is directly negated by facts. Science comes from facts, not despite them. As soon as you've decided the answer before you've looked at the data, you are no longer doing science. Period.

Which doesn't mean you can't believe whatever you want, just think of it as miraculous or magical or whatever makes you happy. Just don't try to warp science to make it fit.

Science is not secret. There are some scientific breakthroughs and technological advances that take place behind closed doors, either for patent protection or national security (i.e. military developers), but that is far and away a small portion of science. Science is one of those places where nothing is accepted by the scientific community until you show you work (in this case your data) and survive that data and your conclusions being challenged. There are two reasons for this: one is that science often leads to the greater good for people - understanding weather patterns or geological indications. The other is that something that can't take the rigor of scientific review is probably not true.

Note that that very openness is often a significant source of stress for scientists who, if they have a controversial finding, spend all of their time defending what are often trivial aspects or odd data points by people who have no real understanding of the science behind it.

Disproved vs. Unexplained. I spoke briefly about data that may not fit a theory not being discounted, but also not precluding a theory's veracity. In general, that data would be unexplained, like the platypus, for example, which doesn't fit neatly into the usual patterns when discussing evolution. To the best of my knowledge, no one has a definitive explanation for that, so it's unexplained, but doesn't negate the patterns of natural selection and adaptation directly observed and evaluated via genetic review.

Disproving a notion/hypothesis/theory is a completely different beast. The hard ones is when an assertion is made that is not readily proved nor disproved. Even if it seems unlikely (as the original assertion that vaccines caused autism, for example), in order to disprove the notion, a great deal of testing and observation had to take place, showing that the use of the accused element in the vaccine did not have the effect suggested as well as considerable data showing the same level of autism when using no vaccines or vaccines without it. Unfortunately, before the baseless accusation (which was part of the problem) was thoroughly disproved, so many people had already bought into it that the notion is still prevalent. And, as data was gathered, a large number of children were put at risk, were unnecessarily ill and even died as a results.

The other much easier way to disprove a theory is hard data already in hand that negates it absolutely. For example, if one's "theory" was that the earth was ten thousand years old, this could be immediately disproved since there are hard paleontological and geological and archeological data from far far before that. There are, in fact, human records that go back much further than that. Hence, disproved.

Scientists are not gods (Lord knows I don't want to be one) or all knowing. You don't have to tell us, we know that. That's WHY we insist on the rigor we do, why we check each others' work, why the data takes precedence over the most impressive reputation. We know mistakes on our part can affect many other people. We don't like being wrong, but good scientists would rather be wrong and caught than think they are right when they're not.

I can't speak for all scientists, but I don't want to take anyone's belief system away. Have at. Enjoy. Just don't call it science and don't teach it like it is in schools.

Cross posted on Gather.


  • Cheryl Carvajal

    THAT's why I read your blog. I miss your intelligent voice when I'm not hearing it.

  • GumbyTheCat

    Hiya Stephanie, long time no see. Just wanted to see if you were still blogging! I have mine in hiding; I haven't been motivated to blog in quite some time. Real life got in the way, ya know?

    I read your weight loss program is going great, congratulations! That's amazing.

    Anyway, when I finally get the oomph to resume blogging I'll drop you the URL (I let my custom domain expire).

  • Alysa

    This is cool!

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