We hear the word “scientific” bandied about on a not infrequent basis by advertisers, politicians, and other authority figures. And most of us think we know what scientific means—and then we get images in our head of beakers boiling, rockets taking off, and atomic bombs exploding. For most people it means something like, “modern” or “cool” or “something we should buy.” Meanwhile, others want to question its reliability or imagine that it is somehow opposed to religion or other “human” values—or that it gets in the way of discovering the real truth that is “out there.”
None of those things really reflect the nature of what science is, or what an odd and wonderfully powerful and radically world changing concept that science has been for humanity. The scientific method may be defined very simply as: “a way of testing the truth of by attempting to find fault with it.”
Therefore, science is both very easy and very hard. It is a snap to explain, it is easy to understand, but it is devilishly difficult to follow consistently because it is very, very unnatural to how we normally live.
One of the biggest misconceptions among non-scientists of what science is all about is that science tries to prove things true. In fact, science operates exactly backward to this. It actually attempts to disprove stuff.
Look at it this way. If I study the birds in the fields and lakes around me, I may sooner or later notice a species called “swans.” And after awhile, I may realize that all the swans I’ve seen are white. Thus, I might offer a hypothesis (a fancy word that means ‘educated guess’): “all swans are white.”
How can I prove my hypothesis? If I want to demonstrate that it’s true, I will have to find every swan on the planet and see for myself that each one of them is white. Only at that point would I be able to consider my hypothesis absolutely “proven.”
As this is impractical, how else can I decide whether my hypothesis is reasonable? I realize, if I think about it a moment, that the disproving of my hypothesis requires me to locate but a single example of a swan that is some color other than white. If I manage to do that, then my hypothesis is disproved. And in fact, if I venture to Australia, I will discover that down under there are black swans. My hypothesis that “all swans are white” is in fact untrue.
This then is how we can decide whether an idea or approach is scientific: is it something that can be disproved? Can an experiment be set up that has the possibility of turning out in a way other than the way the hypothesis says it should go? If so, then a hypothesis can be said to be scientific. If it is not possible to falsify by experiment then whatever other merits an idea might have, it cannot reasonably claim the sobriquet “scientific.”
Thus, anecdotal evidence—“it worked for me!”—isn’t scientific. It is akin to the old joke about the man who wore garlic cloves all the time. When asked about it, he explained that it kept the vampires away. When challenged, he was happy to point out that never once, in all his years of garlic wearing, had he ever been attacked by a vampire. What more proof could you want?
While you may be certain that the dead grasshopper in your pocket is what has given you a good golf game today, chances are the rest of us will be skeptical until you are willing to run a few rigorous experiments. Maybe line up a few dozen people who try golfing with and without dead grasshoppers in their pockets to see if it has any effect on their golf scores. There is a reason, after all, that you are most likely to travel to the hospital if you’re suffering chest pains rather than seeking out your friend who claims herbs will cure anything.
The scientific method is designed to overcome our human tendency to only notice information that conforms to what we believe. If we become convinced that pickles are bad for us, we’ll take notice of the data that shows us that Civil War veterans who enjoyed pickles regularly are now sadly dead—but not pay attention to the information that those who didn’t like them are equally deceased.
The scientific method is what forces us to focus on what disconfirms our notions, what broadsides our cherished beliefs, what makes us to see what we choose to miss. The scientific method is a way of forcing us past our human nature to see only what we already believe.
“But he was such a good boy,” comments the mother of the gang member as the police haul him off in handcuffs. In the same way, the scientific method forces us to confront the truth, rather than to remain oblivious in our hopeful delusions.