A Layman’s Explanation Of the Mechanisms of Science

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It seems to be that its becoming more popular than ever to demonize and belittle science and scientific progress. I think this is a symptom of the larger phenomenon of increased tribalism, but that’s for another post. This is an area where we as scientists are failing to communicate our ideas to people with different backgrounds than ours.  It’s all too easy for someone who doesn’t know science and it’s inner workings to declare scientists as only self interested and stuck in an ivory tower,  isolated from the workings from the real world. As scientists, we know this isn’t true because we are part of the eal world just s everyone else is, but it’s still our job to expose the rest of the people in the world to the section of the real world we occupy. This is an attempt to explain the fundamentals of science and how it works.

Science is an offshoot of the discipline of what works.  This is best illustrated by an example that’s hopefully relatable by everyone. Imagine you are in the kitchen cooking a meal by a recipe. You are going through the steps, adding the ingredients, and say to yourself “this could use some oregano”, or “this needs more pepper”. You add that ingredient and then do a taste test. You are figuring out what works in the recipe with the end result being the meal.

This is exactly how science works. It uses the “what works” principle but instead of using it to make a better meal, it uses it to gain knowledge. Biology uses the principle to gain knowledge about living things. Paleontology uses the principle to gain knowledge about dead things. Archeology uses it to gain knowledge about dead societies. Chemistry uses the principle to gain knowledge about chemicals. This is what science is.  It’s a bunch of people out there, trying different recipes using very expensive tools adding to our knowledge of what works. The scientific procedure is then just a guideline on how to come up it a new recipe.

Of course, as with any human endeavor, science isn’t without its flaws. People rarely check to see if they can make someone else’s recipe. There is little reward for doing so. That obviously needs to change. Its proving to be quite a problem for some disciplines such as psychology, wherein the recipe is so astonishingly complex, it is incredibly difficult for someone else to repeat it. There is also the case where someone will only look at the recipe their paycheck writer wants them to, and not the opposite recipe. This could be a case where science would help better science.  You could have a system that rates the amount of potential bias in a paper by the paper topic and the leanings of the supporting institution. These are flaws just like any human institution has but science has the ability, by using the principle of what works, to improve itself. All of science’s flaws are so incredibly minuscule and rare compared to the net knowledge it contributes precisely because it has already undergone centuries of self improvement. In the future, science will only get better as long as it follows it’s own guiding principle of what works.

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2 thoughts on “A Layman’s Explanation Of the Mechanisms of Science

  1. Cindy Beck

    Where would the world be without scientists? Their contributions to the world and the knowledge therein is astronomical! Of course there are faults, as there is in any human, or as you say, any human endeavor. That’s what makes life interesting.

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    1. Without science the world would be a very different place. I’d argue that since science is the discovery of repeatable knowledge, without it we would be back in the stone ages or even prior.

      With the scientific revolution we figured out a good methodology to practice and communicate science. It’s the results of this methodology, when they don’t agree with the status quo way of doing things, that gets scientists into social trouble.

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