There has been an ongoing debate in our society for the last several years about the theory of evolution. And about the only thing that has been learned from this conflict is that even here in the 21st century, where every person daily uses the products of science, the general public understands darn little about science. Now, by understands I don’t mean is up on the latest in scientific theory or the current work in particle physics. I mean they don’t even understand what science is! Some think it is a belief system, others a conspiracy to confuse the masses and strip them of their faith in God, still others think it is a series of guesses that are as apt to be wrong as right. So in the face of this massive ignorance, I’d like to share my feeble understanding in the hopes that it might contribute to a small general increase in scientific literacy.
First of all, SCIENCE IS NOT A BELIEF SYSTEM, IT IS A METHODOLGY. There are people who don’t understand science who believe in it, however. But belief in a particular theory is irrelevant to how science works. In its most simple form the scientific method is a way of testing ideas about the universe to see if they hold up. Religious people say that there are some ideas about the universe that science cannot test. This is completely true. Science deals only with observable, testable, repeatable phenomena in the natural world. Anything purely subjective- supernatural occurrences, purely personal experiences and feelings, anything cannot be observed and measured objectively, is outside the purview of science. And science deals only with natural explanations for these objective phenomena. Anything that cannot be explained by a natural process is also outside the scope of science. Several examples of this might be thought, imagination, emotion, or religion. In other words, science can tell you about biochemistry but not about love. About sound but not about music.
This SCIENTIFIC METHOD is the classic problem solving methodology. It works for more than science. Police use a variation to solve crimes, doctors to diagnose patients. Virtually everyone uses a variation of the scientific method to understand their surroundings.
So what is the scientific method? It goes something like this:
(1) GATHER DATA. Another way to say this might be- observe the universe around you. These observations can be direct (Newton getting hit on the head with the apocryphal apple) or made with the aid of devices but they have to be repeatable. This means that if you and I make the same observation we will see the same thing. Observations have to be constant enough that they are not debated. In other words, facts. All science starts with observation.
(2) FORMULATE A HYPHOTHESIS. Having observed as best you can, you must now formulate a theory as to what is going on. This theory should tie the data together in such a way that you can extrapolate what other, as yet unobserved data might exist. The analogy is that data is a group of points drawn on a piece of paper to signify locations, the theory is the map that ties them all together. But it is more that that. Such a map would have to include new points that exist but haven’t been found yet. It also has to account for any as yet unobserved data that might not be directly predicted. Tricky, huh?
(3) DESIGN AN EXPERIMENT TO TEST YOUR HYPOTHESIS. Now that you’ve decided what seems to be going on, figure out a way to disprove it. That’s right, I said disprove it. It is impossible to prove a theory. All theories are conditional because there is always the possibility that new data will later be found which does not fit the theory. But they have to include all available data. In the map analogy, You know where three things are so you’ve drawn your map predicting where a fourth thing will be. An experiment is to go out and find or not find that fourth thing.
(4) EVALUATE THE DATA. Did you find the item on the map that you expected? If it is there then the theory is sound. If it is not then the map must be discarded.
(5) REASSESS THE HYPOTHESIS INCLUDING ANY NEW DATA. Sometimes you will find both the expected outcome and new data you didn’t expect. Only if the theory can also account for the new data is it sound. Otherwise you return to Step 1 and start over. But actually you return to step 1 either way. Since science is a method, it is never really satisfied with any answer. Only after years of experimentation and observation is a new theory accepted and then that acceptance is always contingent on finding some new data that renders the theory obsolete. This has happened countless times through the history of science. The best that science can do is say that from everything we’ve observed this is what seems to be going on. Science offers no absolute answers.
So lets look at how this has actually worked in the past.