Science is a process practiced by people interested in learning about nature and the physical world. As with any topic, definition is important. For that, I always turn (in this case literally) the pages of a good dictionary. I still have my three-inch-thick copy of Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary (Unabridged) – Second Edition that served me well in my college years for the answer. Yes, it requires turning pages and knowing how to spell, so I also invite you to check the online answer against the following that has changed little since 1983.
“Science – 1) the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding. 2) knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.”
The key to this definition is the so-called scientific method, which is not a destination but a journey (not my description, but quite appropriate). By that, I mean that conclusions of any scientific study are based on the collection and analysis of data using appropriate methodology. But those conclusions may not be the only or even the right answer – thus the confusion about science.
I pause here, because it is important to understand the process by which scientists “test” hypotheses, by employing the scientific method, defined by a multi-step process that begins with asking a question. A hypothesis is then defined, methods are chosen to collect data, data are analyzed, and conclusions are made and reported. But, and this is a BIG “but,” this does not mean that the hypotheses or the ways and means chosen to address the question are the best ones. They could be, but without additional study, including repetition using the same methods, and studies using different ones are the “heart and soul” of science.
And this is what many folks point to when challenging science. That is, you scientists cannot make up your minds. “You said one thing before, but now have a different answer.” Well, we are trained to question evidence, test hypotheses over and over again, and learn from that process. That last term is what matters – learning. If done correctly, any new inquiry is based on the results and conclusions of prior work that helps build a clearer picture around the question being asked. Sometimes, prior work collected data from a limited angle that did not address other important aspects of the question.
A simple example illustrates the process. A budding science fair student asks this question – Will squirrels eat fruit loops? They put out Fruit Loops only and sure enough, squirrels were seen eating every one of them in a day’s time. The conclusion is that squirrels eat Fruit Loops. But what if they then put out Cheerios and Fruit Loops? The squirrels were then seen eating mostly Cheerios. Different answer, right?
This process is not a weakness of science – it is in fact the power of science – to grow from the experiences of those of us that ask the questions and follow a journey toward better understanding. Our destination is just that – a better understanding of a question until a clearer comprehension comes along – by further study – the journey.
So, when I hear the criticism of folks about science being wishy-washy because we cannot make up our minds on an answer, it simply reminds me that we scientists have done a poor job of explaining our methods. Most importantly, we have not explained that our answers are not always the final ones: they may and often change, sometimes in opposing directions, as we learn more. As humans, it is difficult to accept that we were wrong about something. Science provides us the means to avoid that trap of hubris.
That does not make us better than anyone else. What it should and often does is make us humbled by the fact that we do not know everything, but we have a means of trying to find a better answer. The journey never really ends.