f you think about it, it’s actually pretty sad that somebody is even motivated enough to open a Word processor and start writing about why should we trust science. Make no mistake, it’s important to think for yourself and not blindly follow what any authority says, but in this day and age, we all can agree that the problem of our World is NOT too much rational thinking and looking at evidence, but rather the opposite. It is not that people are looking for evidence and then look at evidence themselves, it’s that people are looking for opinions that confirm their already existing suspicions or preconceived notions. That is called Confirmation Bias.
Ok, after this gross-generalization, let’s get real. Many times story is less sinister. Today it’s easier than ever to be exposed to the so-called fake news. We all have a huge number of friends on social media platforms. There is a large spectrum of beliefs about the world and only some of them are true. So, it’s very likely that everyone has at least one free-spirit, alternative energy, magic beans, astrology type who likes to share various dubious claims with links to dubious sources which someone may tend to believe. The problem with this should be clear: not every idea is a good idea, or to put it more bluntly: not everything you read on the Internet is true.
Image: felixioncool / Pixabay, Public Domain
The problem with Google and all search engines really is that they use algorithms. Algorithms define what to show you and they are simply NOT smart enough to separate truth from nonsense. Not only that, but that is not even the goal of search engines. The goal of search engines, is actually, believe it or not is to make money – show advertising. Not suggesting that there’s a conspiracy or anything, but the simple fact is that search engines are not designed to look for the truth. They look for pages that are relevant to what you typed in. And factors that increase perceived relevance are page load speed, number of links around the web to these pages, how people use programming language of the web (HTML), whether site uses encryption, whether page is optimized for mobile devices, there’s a suggestion that even each user’s search history is included into consideration, so someone is more likely to continue being presented with dubious sites … it’s clear that they do not care simply about what’s true.
Those algorithms can even be influenced by various techniques. Just google for technical term “Search Engine Optimization”. You will notice it also has a so-called black hat variety, which is clearly a technique to game the system. To see how search engine results can go very wrong, read the “Google, democracy and the truth about internet search” on The Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr.
So, how do you decide who and what to trust? In theory it’s not that difficult, really, since some endeavors and enterprises have a system behind them which makes it very, very hard for individuals to get away with fake news and present it as a fact. Not only that, but also mistakes cannot easily get published and promoted as credible facts. So, let’s try to present a case why generally speaking you should put your trust in things that science says and ignore the things various gurus and self-proclaimed experts say. In essence, this post will try to show why we consider science trustworthy and why you should feel the same. So, let’s begin.
What is science?
Well, according to the popular belief, science is a collection of knowledge. Certainly there’s that component to it, but it’s more than that. Science is more like a way of life, as Buddhists would say. Science can potentially be viewed as a collection of various branches whose function is to determine what are the explanations of various phenomena in their respective fields. So, science generally speaking is an endeavor which strives to explain our world, universe and everything. So, science is kind of applied natural philosophy. By this definition it would follow that science is categorized into subsections.
So, you might ask – how can we trust science as a whole, when its various branches are concerned with such different types of phenomena, ranging from social to the phenomena that occurs in the subatomic? Well, as it turns out, all sciences today share a similar methodology of getting to the conclusions and all have correcting mechanisms built it.
Definition of science
knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method
- "Science." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 17 June 2017.
So, science uses something called scientific method to reach the specified knowledge.
Image: ColiN00B / Pixabay, Public Domain
Basically, scientific method is a methodology or procedure if you will, where the simplified process goes something like this:
- Observe the problem or a situation – we see something in nature which we cannot explain, for example.
- Wonder ‘WHY?’
Think about a HYPOTHESIS - a possible explanation.
- This means that both the problem was defined and our goal – something is happening and we want to know why.
Make a prediction – define what is the CONSEQUENCE of prediction being correct – if the hypothesis is correct this means …
- This is happening BECAUSE …
- NOTE! The hypothesis is NOT necessarily correct. It might be completely REJECTED in the next steps and then it would be replaced by a different hypothesis.
- The hypothesis must be TESTABLE. This means that scientists must be able to test whether this explanation is true, by seeing whether it’s predictions about the world hold. By this definition things outside nature are not testable.
- IMPORTANT! The hypothesis must be FALSIFIABLE, which means that scientists must be able to DISPROVE it through an experiment. This means that scientists need to be able to imagine and perform an experiment which might disprove that hypothesis false. By the very definition of this, it means that in order for the scientific method to continue hypothesis cannot be something that cannot be tested, for example the idea that fairies sometimes save people from car crashes.
- What this all means is that a successful hypothesis has passed attempts to disprove it – was not disproven by experiments.
TEST the predictions – the most important part.
- Another way of saying this would be – what should the results of an experiment be if a hypothesis is correct?
- These predictions must be repeatable, which means they cannot follow from random chance. Scientists need to be able to perform the experiment again and get the same result.
- This is where the falsifiability comes in – if these predictions do not occur, or experiments show a different result this would mean that the hypothesis is incorrect. It must be possible to get a negative answer.
- What follows from this is that when a prediction is not falsified this contributes to the validity of the Hypothesis – making it more credible.
ANALYZE the results of the experiments
- Perform experiments to see if predictions hold. This means that scientists check if observations from an experiment agree with the prediction of the hypothesis.
- The important thing is that the experiments are also RISKY to the hypothesis. It makes no sense to perform experiments directly designed to confirm the hypothesis. In essence, scientists are trying to falsify it.
- Here additional steps are taken to prevent the impact of bias of individual scientists. One of the most important concepts if for example double-blinded trial, where neither the subject of the experiment or the scientist performing the experiment know about the variables that can impact the testing, which means that results cannot be given away by scientists. This is mostly used in testing of the drugs, where neither those who administer the test or the test subjects know which pills are the placebo and which are real.
- This means that in some cases scientists perform additional steps on the results of the experiments – like mathematical modeling or what have you
- Results of experiments are compared with the predictions that hypothesis made. Then a decision is being made what to do next. Experiments might have completely disproven the hypothesis, for example. In this case, scientists would need to return to the third step and again think about the hypothesis – come up with a new one.
- It is also possible that scientists decide they did not perform enough tests. In this case they need to test another prediction of the same hypothesis and see if this holds up as well. Each successful test increases confidence.
- While in this manner it might not be possible to define what is true in the strictest sense of mathematical proof for example, hypothesis can indeed be proved beyond reasonable doubt.
- Of course, it is possible that scientists get no solution at all after all the tests.
- It is likely that one hypothesis is simply a part of something bigger, in which case not disproving this particular hypothesis does not mean anything HUGE in the great scheme of things, but scientists simply build upon this to a next hypothesis that might come from this one.
- Few tested hypotheses can for example form a theory.
- A theory is “well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation.” – Wikipedia.
- Theory can also contain facts – fact is an observation that has been confirmed and is regarded as true.
- We have briefly touched upon a concept of Scientific Theory before.
It is important to note that in modern science this rigorous process is basically repeated over and over, because best hypotheses enable scientists to build on top of them.
By ArchonMagnus - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link
But wait, that’s not all. There is also this other layer named peer review.
So, after (or before, during the research-grant phase) interpreting the data and publishing results, science magazines and those who give grants for research have a peer review policy, but in theory every single step of the scientific method is potentially subject to the peer review. [Wikipedia – Elements of the scientific method] This means that the work, (data or publication) is given to the peers, or colleagues of the scientists who are making the hypothesis or publishing the paper. These other scientists who work in the same field independently review the work and provide the feedback which can get scientific paper published or not published. The scientists who originally thought about the hypothesis might be given a possibility to review the publication and try to submit it again. For example, highly acclaimed scientific journals Science and Nature only publish about 7% of all papers submitted to them.
So, it’s not easy to get even funded or published.
When the paper is published even this is not the end. That makes it accessible to the larger scientific community as a whole, which means any scientist can see for themselves the specified paper and data and can analyze it. Beyond peer review, any scientist can now try to refute the claims in the paper. Not every scientist goes through all the papers, OF COURSE, but the old saying goes that nobody would like more than to prove they are smarter than their colleagues, so even if something suspicious got through the method and the peer review, it can still be exposed to a scrutiny and proven wrong.
Take evolution for example. It has been around for a long, long time, available for all to try and dispute it. They have the data, they know what would dispute it. Nobody ever has.
So, it should be clear that science is not exactly joking around when it comes to being methodical and rigorous with its ideas and conclusions. Any attempt to compare this rigorous process with any other alternative explanation of facts of the Universe should clearly tell you that science is more trustworthy than gurus who say we have chakras inside of us, or astrology or organic foods or almost any new-age spiritual thing. New age spiritual things are more-or-less fine when it comes to things that are not so important, such as entertaining yourself with stories about healing crystals, but putting your actual health in anything less than this rigorous process seems really, really foolish. Same goes for horoscopes, homeopathy, etc..
Of course you should think for yourself. Nobody ever suggested otherwise. But when trying to reach a conclusion about something, the only evidence you should be looking at is scientific evidence. If some suggestion you think might be true has some merit, it should be possible for you to find other also scientific studies that say something different. For example, if you are trying to reach a conclusion about gravity, you should not listen to the gurus who might say the gravity is not real because they don’t feel it in their heart or WTF-ever, but look for a scientific refutation of gravity. No other opinion even comes close.
Sources and further reading:
- Scientific method on Wikipedia
- What is Peer Review in Science? on Study.com
- Peer Review in Scientific Publishing on Visionlearning
- Prediction in science on Wikipedia
- Scientific method on RationalWiki
- How Scientific Peer Review Works on HowStuffWorks
- Definitions of Fact, Theory, and Law in Scientific Work on National Center for Science Education
- Introduction to the Scientific Method on University of Rochester
- Research on Wikipedia