Some people are suspicious of science and scientists. Depending on your outlook you may be sympathetic to that view, completely embrace it, or you may not understand it at all.

What is science?

But first, I think it’s important to explain what science is and is not. Science is the pursuit of facts through experimentation, observation, and – often – statistics. Science can never be sure that it is perfect, but every advance is progress towards perfection. Perfection is the target, an infinite distance away.

What is science not?

It is important to note that science is not a belief system. There is no faith required to accept science, unless by ‘faith’ you mean you need to believe there is a truth to the universe. Or unless you don’t believe mathematics is true. Science relies on a few tenets being true:

  1. That there is a truth to find,
  2. That mathematics is consistent and always reconciles, and
  3. That the results of experiments, in the exact same conditions, will always have the same result.

How science?

Science uses a simple process:

  1. Review the existing knowledge (peer-reviewed literature),
  2. Describe a hypothesis that can be tested,
  3. Design an experiment to test that hypothesis, then
  4. Run the experiment and record what happens.

Some of those steps are harder than they sound. Designing an experiment means ensuring that the only things you’re changing are things you intend to change. As much as possible, we need to ensure that the differences in results of experiments are the result of changes in the things we’re deliberately changing.

Once we have reviewed the outcomes of experiments, repeated those experiments, and confirmed that the new hypothesis is better than any earlier ones, we describe a new theory.

Can you trust what scientists say?

Any individual scientist might not be trustworthy, but after a paper has been peer-reviewed, replicated, and built upon with new knowledge, you can trust the scientific result. In the early days of, for example, climate science, there was a larger doubt than there is today about the implications, the causes, and what we could do about it. Over time, and with a lot of effort, the collaborative efforts of climate scientists, geologists, astronomers, thermal dynamics physicists, and many, many more, the doubt has been erased. While science does not deal in absolutes, it does zero in on the truth.

What, you might ask, about Newton? He was wrong for a long time.

Newton was not ‘wrong’ any more than any other scientist who advances their field is wrong. Newton’s work on forces (especially gravity), motion, and other phenomena were the best information available at the time. In fact, for most applications, we still use Newton’s equations today: They provide a great approximation for reality and the results derived were a lot better than anything that came before.

When Einstein developed his theories, he was working to solve some known shortcomings in Newton’s solutions. The scientific community (and so humanity) knew that there were circumstances when Newton’s equations did not work. We already knew, for example, that light never changes speed, even when one moves relative to it. Einstein was capable of doing the brain-gymnastics necessary to work out what that means, and how it works mathematically, but he didn’t disprove Newton’s theories, he refined them for more difficult edge-cases.

We are in a similar position now with Einstein’s theories. We know they work to amazing precision in almost all circumstances. We just cannot make them work, mathematically, inside a singularity (like a black hole, or at the beginning of the universe). When (not if!) humans work out how to finesse Einstein’s theories to be compatible with singularities and the probabilistic nature of reality, then we will need to amend some of the mathematics behind Einstein’s theories, but that will not ‘prove Einstein wrong’.

What if I don’t agree with a scientific principle?

It really depends why you don’t agree. Scientists who think there is something wrong with a current theory are advancing our knowledge! But if you’re a lay person who doesn’t agree, that probably means it conflicts with something you believe or hold dear.

  • It can be hard to hear that climate change is real if you or your family work in the oil industry, or are fearful of having to rely on a new technology like electric cars or wind turbines.
  • It can be hard to hear that the Earth is four billion years old if your parents and your church tell you that it was created more recently.
  • It can be hard to learn about linguistic evolution if you believe that we all spoke a common language before hubris had us build a tower.
  • It can be difficult to believe what science says about abortion, if your beliefs are on the extremes of so-called pro-life or pro-choice debates.

Whether it is hard or not, though, does not change its truth. Your feelings are important to you, but they are not important to the truth or facts.

So, why science?

So the reason why we should do and trust science, is that there is no other known way of establishing truth. If something is unknown, the scientific method is the only process we know to know it. And until science is applied to a problem, we don’t really know it. There is a LOT that we don’t actually know, and if there wasn’t, there would be nothing for scientists to do!