What is Science?
I always love it when someone attributes some bit of knowledge to ‘science’ in general. You’ll see it all of the time in articles that start with sentences like “Science tells us…” or “As we know from science…” as if Science was a really smart guy they know.
Even when the information presented is accurate and scientifically undisputable (like “Science tells us that energy cannot be created or destroyed” or ‘As we know from science, your friend Janet is way heavier than the 125 pounds indicated on her driver’s license”), the phrasing of the statement underlies the very misconception that the majority of the public has as to what science actually is.
Science is not an all-knowing voice making decrees about the nature of the Universe. It’s not some established set of physical laws. It’s not even the conclusions that are reached through experimentation. Science, plain and simple, is just a process.
That’s it. The process of science is the process of very controlled hypothesis testing. Of observation and investigation and experimentation. Of impartial third parties replicating experiments and looking for variations in results. Of basically trying everything possible to prove your own idea wrong.
And some of the most important parts of that process happen long after the lab doors close. After writing up their findings, scientists must then go through the peer review process in which other experts look at the work and basically try to find any possible reason to reject it. The process can be harsh and insanely nitpicky, the scientific version of a Friar’s Club Roast, but only after it is complete can that research then be published in a peer-reviewed journal. And still the process isn’t done.
The gold standard of science isn’t publication in a major journal; it’s the replication of your experiments (and results) by an independent third party. Even then, after the whole process from hypothesis through independent confirmation is done, the scientific literature will see modifications and variations and exceptions to your paper enter the literature as other researchers build off of that work. It’s never truly done because science isn’t a thing, it’s a process.
The amazing amount of scientific knowledge that we have accumulated over the last few centuries is staggering. What we know about the Universe is more than any person could hope to learn in even the longest of lifetimes. And that knowledge should be cited and utilized and made paramount in policy discussions. But calling the knowledge itself the science, instead of the result of the science, contributes to the confusion as to what science actually is.
That confusion is something we should probably work on as a society because it is at the heart of much of the public’s misunderstanding of science and scientific findings. The confusion gives broad definitive authority to narrowly specific results. It makes ‘science’ seem temperamental and inconsistent. It allows pseudoscience and fraud to be confused with science. It makes the phrase ‘Christian Science’ somehow not seem so nonsensical.
As a process, science can always be redone, can always correct itself, and can always strive towards truth. As a monolithic authority ‘Science’ is bound to be proved wrong eventually. Like the average looking child of two very attractive people, it’s a creature that’s fated to disappoint by its very nature.
As a society, we should take some more time to make sure people know what exactly the word ‘science’ means and exactly what it can or cannot ‘tell us’. But the good news is, if we fail to do a decent job ensuring most of the population knows the real definition of the word, maybe they’ll have an easier time with the Mandarin translation of it: Those guys seem to have the whole science thing down pretty well and I’m sure they’d be happy to explain it to us while we pump their gas.
Just kidding: they’ll be driving mostly electric cars by then.