#57: What Is Science?

We are living in a world where people expect easy answers, quick soundbites, witty tweets, and individualistic, even solipsistic and narcissistic approaches to the big questions of life. It is your feelings that matter, not those of most people; it is your thoughts, not those of others; it is your desires and needs, not those of others; and it is your world view that counts, not those of others. There is legitimacy in this, of course, as a corrective to totalitarian approaches to human existence, and to conformity, mass culture, and to the every overbearing and overeducated academic trying to lecture you about what to think and do.

But there are things in this world that are real, that are not bowing to our wishes, and that are not depending on anyone’s point of view. We may be able to interpret the world differently, but the world still exists. Reality is real. How do we know? It’s called evidence. It can be proven by different people from different backgrounds and perspectives, using different methodologies, all arriving at the same result. No matter how you look at the sun, you cannot deny that it is a gas giant powered by nuclear fusion, heavy enough to exert enough gravity to have all the planets and dwarf planets and comets and asteroids and whatnot perambulate around it in their respective orbits, Earth being one of them. We can measure the distance from us to the sun. We may measure it in miles or meters or astronomical units or light years or parsecs, but it is always the same distance. We may paint the sun with a smile and rays, but that’s just artistic license. We may believe we can appease the sun by praying to a Sun god, but the astronomical object does not care. No matter what we puny humans think, the sun exists with or without us. We can even send a probe up to the sun and receive data for as long as the probe is still functioning. It is not a figment of our imagination, not up to discussion whether it exists, we have evidence, it is there. Science is about evidence.

We know about the sun from our own visual observation, but that might be misleading. Our eyes and brain are well able to conspire against us, so that is not enough. We need a second opinion, maybe a third, or an nth. Science is about collaboration. No single scientist represents all of science. Single scientists can and do disagree regularly with the majority, and in some rare cases they have managed to change the outlook of science to the former minority view. But this “paradigm shift” is a rare event, and it is oftentimes misunderstood.

Einstein has not overturned Newton. The theory of relativity answers questions about typically big objects at insane speeds, all of that not applying to life on Earth, where Newton and Leibniz still rule. Quantum theory, conversely, looks at ridiculously small objects. In important ways, Relativity and Quantum mechanics have indeed modified Newton, but only by helping us realize that Newton’s mechanics are just a special case scenario, which is still nevertheless valid. Maybe one way to explain this is to use three tools for seeing. If I use a microscope, I see very small things very well. If I use a telescope, I see very big things very well. If I just use my in-built eyesight, I see my normal surroundings very well (with or without the aid of glasses). For each special case, we need a different tool, but that does not mean the world has changed; our understanding of it has grown and re-contextualized things, but if objects fell to Earth with an acceleration of g=9.81 m/s² (approximately), they will still do so once we know of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Relativity now may tell us if the object, rather than falling down, sped up to almost light speed, the object would experience time differently. This effect is measurable if you take two atomic clocks, one on the ground and one on a plane, or one on a plane going east, the other on the plane going west. The clocks will not be in sync after their travel. But that’s not quite everyday experience, and for most of us, Newton still stands as normal. If we all lived on spaceships traveling close to the speed of light, Newton would be the special case for a special circumstance, but still be valid there. Scientific revolutions typically do not turn over everything, but they expand our knowledge and methodologies in exciting ways.

If you use science to predict something, you need an experiment, which will lead to some conclusions that will help you advance your hypothesis. Conversely, you can also say how you could predict that your experiment could fail by laying out how you could falsify your thesis. Your hypothesis is that the Earth revolves around the sun. How could this stand up to falsification? By not standing up to the evidence. I am not a physicist (although I some time ago tried to be), so I will no pretend to know the answer, but I know that physics can tell us very clearly how we know that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way round.

Finally, science is not a cult of the initiated. As pointed out by the great Neil DeGrasse Tyson, anybody can learn it. It is not an elitist institution. You can learn math, you can learn physics, geography, astronomy, and figure it our yourself. There is no secret scientific cabal, there is just a group of people doing science together, making sure to find out how to agree and disagree with each other in order to move scientific knowledge further.

If there was a new disease striking our planet, scientists would be working hard to figure out what it is, how to deal with it, and how to stop it from harming us all. They would be doing this as a community of people that will always try to falsify their work, to disagree with colleagues – respectfully – and agree eventually and form a consensus opinion once the evidence is overwhelming, hypotheses have been proven and a theory – which is the general consensus assumption of how a specific thing works – can be formed.

It is true that there can be hundreds of scientists on one side, and a single scientist on the other, and the lone truth seeker wins the argument. Ironically, scientists would be happy about such an occurrence, as frequently pointed out by Richard Dawkins, because it would advance knowledge and science. There is no “alternative” science, there is no “outlaw” science, there is just science.

Scientific knowledge is not fixed. The basics will stand, probably, but at the margins, where there are new puzzles, new information, new discoveries, things are always in flux. Asking a scientist why they changed their mind would be like asking a driver why – rather than keep driving straight – they followed the road when it turned into a curve. You follow the evidence, develop your hypotheses, either prove or falsify them, reevaluate your hypotheses and theories, and move on till it works, and it does work: E pur si muove.