What does science tell us?

So often I see the phrase “According to science…”, or “Science tells us that…”, followed by a context that leads me to believe the author really doesn’t know what science is. Science is poorly taught in most public schools, poorly understood by most policy makers, vilified by some religious groups, and most certainly misrepresented by the mainstream media with very few exceptions.

Science is not a body of knowledge, as most people understand it. It is a philosophy and method of determining what is true and what is false. I learned the scientific method in grade school (clearly, it is well taught from time to time too!), and it has changed my life. The essence is simple; what is true, can be tested. What is true, is repeatable. What is true, can be reproduced (or observed) by others following the same procedure.

Science cannot be wrong, because science is not a thing that can have an opinion, but science is not a set of facts either. Science is a methodology for figuring things out. Period. Do not confuse science with the results science can give us.

A scientist is someone who uses science to figure stuff out (whether for a living, or just as their worldview). This can range from who killed the neighbors cat, to what stars are made of, or even how to keep children from getting measles. The practice of science is not infallible, it is self correcting though, and the fact that it can be corrected does imply that science can sometimes give us false answers… but that does not negate the fact that science is simply the most reliable and objective means we have of knowing what is true or not, and accurately understanding how the universe and our world works. Given enough data, science gets to the bottom of things better than anything else we’ve come up with.

Science is the difference between objectivity and wishful thinking. People have a natural tendency to look for evidence that supports what they believe, and reject evidence that disproves what they want to be true. Fear is also a powerful bias enhancer, and fear can make you believe almost anything. This is true of every single human being on earth. A scientist is simply someone who acknowledges this about themselves, and then proceeds to conduct a life long war on these personal biases. It’s not just a good scientist, but a good human being who can in light of new information change their minds. Human psychology however sometimes makes this exceedingly difficult at times. But when this happens, don’t blame science… as a friend of mine often says, “sometimes it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot”.

Richard is a Software Engineer who has worked in the sciences for most of his career developing software for medical instrumentation, visual simulation, and finally astronomy as a developer at Software Bisque.