I have noticed that in many online debates I’ve participated in, particularly with believers, there is a general lack of understanding of, and hostility towards, the scientific method. Whenever I advance a scientific argument for a point I’m trying to make, I am told things like:
Scientists always contradict each other
Scientists always disagree with one other
There is a conspiracy within the scientific establishment to ‘hide the truth’
Science is just another religion
…and from this they conclude that Science can’t be relied upon to support my case, and my argument gets rejected. (This is usually the case when I am debating the subject of evolution by natural selection with believers.)
In this post, I’d like to explain WHAT science is, HOW the scientific method works, how scientific research is done, and how a consensus is reached. Thereafter, those doubtful of the validity of science might hopefully be able to understand why science, while not perfect, is considered the most reliable method of inquiry available to mankind.
They might then also be able to better appreciate the importance of taking seriously the scientific consensus on various issues, and why they should be wary of dissenters from the consensus who choose to take their fights to the media and the general public – rather than relying on the established, tried and tested, peer review method to validate their claims.
WHAT IS SCIENCE?
Encyclopaedia Britannica defines science as, “any system of knowledge that is concerned with the physical world and its phenomena and that entails unbiased observations and systematic experimentation.”
The reason why science as a form of inquiry trumps all others is because it recognizes the human propensity for bias and error, and methodologically seeks to minimize the possibility of those factors influencing the outcomes of experiments.
THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD
The scientific method, by extension, is the “the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses”. It normally includes the following elements:
Define the question
Gather information and resources (observe)
Perform experiment and collect data
Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
Retest (frequently done by other scientists)
Let’s see how this works in practice:
Say, a scientist, Dr. X, who has been gathering information over a period of time, believes he has stumbled upon a scientific breakthrough. He has made certain observations and has formed a hypothesis out of it. To have his hypothesis accepted by the scientific community, and thereafter gain public acceptance, Dr. X must first write a paper, outlining all the details of his hypothesis, plus detailed descriptions of what experiments he carried out to test and confirm his hypothesis. This description of the experiment should include the protocol [i.e. detailed specifics of how the experiment was conducted].
The purpose of including the protocol is to allow other scientists to independently attempt to replicate your experiment, to check if the conclusions you state in your research paper are in fact warranted by the experiment you carried out. Looking at the protocol will also allow other scientists to comment on whether the controls applied were sufficient to rule out any ‘noise’ or other factors that could influence the outcome of the given experiment.
It is after such a paper has been submitted for publication in a PEER REVIEWED scientific journal and scientists in his field have had a chance to scrutinize and assess its details, study the protocols, that Dr. X’s hypothesis is accepted as valid, and the paper published.
Once a significant majority of scientists in his particular field have either successfully conducted the same experiments, and/or studied the published paper and found the protocols to be sound – then a scientific consensus is achieved.
It is important to point out that the peer review process borders upon being cruel, in the sense that is extremely rigorous, and merciless. Hundreds, if not thousands, of research papers are reviewed by professionals in a given field and many, many ideas end up getting rejected. The highly respected Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, reject well over 90% papers submitted for publication.
Many scientists, whose ideas have been rejected through the peer review process usually go back to the drawing board and try to develop better experiments, with tighter controls in response to the criticism they’ve received. Sometimes their ideas are later able to pass critical scrutiny of their peers, thereafter gaining acceptance, and other times they have to abandon that idea all together for failing to sufficiently demonstrate its validity. In short, one has to be thick skinned if they want to be professional scientists.
The peer review process is the back-bone of science’s self-correcting quality. Other fields of study and academic disciplines also now use the peer review method to ensure as much accuracy as is possible and to weed out bad ideas.
If a scientist wishes to challenge an existing accepted scientific theory (or consensus view), he too, is required to publish his paper in a peer reviewed scientific journal (pertinent to the subject matter), and state his case, with evidence. There is no other way. The merits of its arguments will be critically studied to see if they are valid. If they ARE valid, then that new discovery gets incorporated into our existing body of scientific knowledge – and if they are not, they’ll be tossed out the window.
The problem with many (not all) dissenters from the scientific consensus on a particular is issue is that they don’t want to do the hard work required to develop an air-tight case that can withstand scientific scrutiny, and have those ideas subjected to the peer-review process. Instead, what they do is take their case DIRECTLY TO THE PUBLIC – by publishing books for the mass market, staging news conferences, appearing on radio and TV talk-shows, publishing in websites, blogs and magazines. They sell their ideas to the lay-person, who is not qualified to critically analyze the ideas that are being sold to them. This strategy is typical for most promoters of pseudo-science (e.g. Intelligent Design and Parapsychology), pseudo-history (e.g. Afrocentrism) and medical quackery (e.g Acupuncture), whose ideas usually resonate well with an ill-informed, gullible public.
Examples of quack science being disseminated via popular-level books
Indeed, many books (like those above), press and internet articles, and blogs have been written to challenge the consensus view on evolution, anthropogenic global warming, HIV-AIDS, sexual orientation and a host of other issues for which there is a scientific consensus – from a seemingly scientific basis, by dissenters.
As it stands, books and articles are not where the real battles are supposed to be fought in scientific academia. Those battles are fought through the PEER REVIEW process, and it is only after a scientific idea has undergone this rigorous process, and found acceptance by the majority of scientists in the relevant fields, that it should be disseminated to the public as an accepted scientific fact.
Dr. Kevin Padian, Professor of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Curator of Paleontology, University of California, discussing the importance of peer review.
POLITICISATION OF SCIENCE
Unfortunately, in the recent decades, science has been highly politicised, with people in support of fringe views opting to go straight to the media rather than do better research in order to prove their ideas to their scientific colleagues through the tried and tested peer review process. They, after all, are after winning the hearts and minds of the general public (for ideological/political reasons), and not that concerned with actually doing good science. Of course, the media is equally guilty for playing into their hands and intentionally creating confusion, by always looking for fringe views so that they can generate controversy – hoping to attract more readers/listeners/viewers by doing so.
Many people have taken great pleasure in pointing to dissenting views, and minor controversies appearing in the news – and using these to undermine the scientific enterprise as a whole and making doing science seem akin to mere speculation, yet it is clearly not the case. It just so happens that news outlets tend to give undue prominence to fringe views in an attempt to create controversy just so that they have a ‘story’. The fringe scientists, once given a media platform, then make exaggerated claims about ‘disagreements’ within the scientific community, with the sole intention of sowing seeds of mistrust of the wider scientific establishment by the general public.
The best way to know when an invalid, fringe position (in any discipline) is being represented is if its proponents appear on mainstream media crying “foul”. Other notable catch-phrases of quackery are claims of “scientific orthodoxy”, “scientific dogma” or the phrase “science is their religion”. Good scientists NEVER stoop to such low levels and utter such nonsense. They instead go back to the lab and quietly try to build a rock-solid case to prove the validity of their ideas, if they desire to have their ideas accepted by the scientific community. Any attempts by them to slander the scientific community, attack the peer review process, or undermine the scientific method should set off alarm bells in your mind. Such attempts are symptoms of quackery.
Over the last 500 years the scientific method has demonstrated itself to be the MOST EFFECTIVE and MOST RELIABLE tool of inquiry at the disposal of human beings. It is the scientific method of inquiry that has made it possible to save millions of lives through advances in medicine and improved methods of practicing agriculture (leading to larger crop yields, thus feeding more people)…
Science has given us cars, planes, ships, refrigerators, televisions, radios, telephones, mobile phones, computers, internet, tables, chairs, clothes… and an uncountable number of innovations which today we take for granted, but actually cannot imagine being without…
Science has shown us what is taking place in the microscopic world, and continues to amazes us with a greater understanding of the macroscopic world as well. We’ve put men on the moon, and have been probing and photographing the planets and moons of the solar system for decades. We have seen hitherto unknown parts of the universe, thanks to the Hubble space telescope, and recently the Large Hadron Collider was commissioned in Europe, which seeks to recreate the conditions that were most likely prevalent during the early stages of the universe to give us a better understanding of the origins of the universe…
Artificial DNA has been synthesized, and so have self replicating RNA enzymes – indicating that it may only be a matter of time before we unlock the mystery as to specifically how life was formed on this planet…
Indeed, many questions remain and this is where scientists see opportunities for further discovery. They don’t throw their hands in the air and say “oh, this is too impossible to comprehend – it must be the gods!” No, they keep investigating. Many phenomena for which the supernatural was invoked as an explanation have been shown to have natural explanations that explained them, better and more thoroughly – because people kept investigating. Volcanoes, floods, sickness, thunder, droughts..etc..which used to be thought of as deeds of the gods are now explained by science. Yes, there are many more as yet unanswered questions, and that is where scientists are hard at work.
No other method of enquiry possesses anywhere near the same degree of thoroughness, reliability, and efficiency in helping us better understand this universe that we live in, as science does.
Let’s make the most of it!