by Ryan Sain, Ph.D.
Science isn’t just cool. It’s @^*&#$% amazing. It’s so amazing, you can’t really categorize it in a small way. That’s because science isn’t a ‘thing’ – it is not a noun. Rather, it is a verb. And a big one at that. To do science is the behavior of scientists. Science is also the behavior of anyone who has ever tried to solve a problem. Science is the actions that you do to learn about your world in a systematic and controlled way. Sometimes we use things like the Large Hadron Collider that operate under the strictest controlled environments or we may just plop a camera on a tripod and broadcast our trials to the world with little or no controls via YouTube. Science does not discriminate. You do science – just like you do you – in your way, with the tools you have available.
I’ve been a scientist my whole life. However, I formally became one at Washington State University about 13 years ago. Since then, I’ve taught science to anyone who wants to learn. If there is one thing I think everyone should know about science is that it’s as much of an attitude as it a collection of procedures. We call it the ‘scientific attitude’.
“Question everything” is the core of the scientific attitude. This attitude runs so deep that good scientists will question their own work with levels of scrutiny unheard of in their personal lives. That questioning leads to many basic principles – namely the topic of falsification.
Falsification is the core canon upon which science rests. It is also the most misunderstood part of science. For example – you may say “science has proved XYZ”. This is patently false. Science cannot prove anything. Why? Because we cannot tell you what will happen in situations we haven’t tested. Science can only show that something is incorrect. We seek to show what is not the case. We work by finding out what is wrong, what is incorrect, what is untenable – and then, the only thing left standing becomes accepted as fact – albeit only until something proves that wrong.
You see, that’s what makes science the most unique form of knowing. The principle of self-correction. It is the only self-corrective way of knowing about your world. If science gets something wrong, then we will root it out over time, we will kill it, we will destroy the falsehood – repeatedly – until we have found an alternative that fits with even better with nature. Talk about cool. To be scientific means that you do not accept anything as fact – only as something that hasn’t been proven wrong yet. And it’s your job to find and root out and destroy more falsehoods – especially the most closely held ones. This practice leads to progress in our understanding of our natural world(s) – the goal of science.
Welcome to Natural Selections – a column on, you guessed it, science. So come play! We’re going to take a light-hearted, edutainment type look all things science – from methodology, to philosophy, to whale sperm counts, to quantum physics, to rats and pigeons that gamble. Welcome aboard.