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What is science, anyway?

March 17, 2022

by Carl Nelson, Chief Scientist, Imagination Station

“We live in a society absolutely dependent on science and technology, and yet have cleverly arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. That’s a clear prescription for disaster.”

- Carl Sagan (1994)

Even today, nearly 30 years after Sagan made this comment, one might think that little has changed.

We take science for granted. We all recognize science’s contributions in modernizing our daily lives and applaud scientific advancements like vaccines and traveling to the moon. Science is a term we throw around in casual conversations, yet we rarely pause to consider: what exactly is science, anyway?

We can think of science as both a body of knowledge (the things we have already learned) and the process of acquiring new knowledge (through observation and experimentation). In other words - the things we know and how we understand more things. These are interdependent since the knowledge gained depends on the questions asked and the methods used to find the answers.

To put it another way, science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.

Science can be divided into different branches based on the subject of study.

Physical Sciences

Biological Sciences

Social Sciences

Astronomy

Biology

Anthropology

Physics

Medicine

Sociology

Chemistry

Political Science

Earth Sciences

Economics

So how does that work?

We observe something in nature, and based on what we currently know, we start generating ideas, even guesses, on how to explain or predict it. These ideas are called hypotheses. Now some might stop there, thinking their view is correct simply because “it seems right” or “it feels like it makes sense.” But for a scientist, this is not enough. Comparing these ideas against real-world observations or experiments is a must using the scientific method - a step-by-step process to explore observations, conduct experiments and answer questions.

1. Ask a question.
2. Do background research.
3. Create a hypothesis.
4. Test the hypothesis against an experiment.
5. Analyze data and draw conclusions.
6. Share your findings.

Once we have a hypothesis, it’s critical to test its predictions against what was observed in the real world. If those predictions disagree with observation or experiment, the hypothesis is wrong. If our predictions are correct or explain all the facts that we’ve found, we have a theory.

It is important to note that even within the “body of knowledge” that science has garnered, nothing is ever written in stone, never to be questioned again. For instance, we may have a lot of data to support the theory that gravity does exist - in exquisite detail - but we are constantly refining and reassessing the data. Because of Einstein, our understanding of gravity today is not what it was for Newton. Any new evidence may support this theory, but it doesn’t prove it. While we accept certain theories as “true,” we do this provisionally. “Truth” today does not guarantee that we may find evidence to the contrary tomorrow. Science is constantly gathering additional evidence concerning accepted theories.

This is not to say that we don’t need to listen to the science - or, more accurately, to the scientific consensus. Climate change is real. Vaccines work. But our understanding of science is constantly evolving, building on our previous knowledge.

Do all scientists follow this process strictly? Well, sort of. Scientists use the scientific method, but not always as precisely laid out in a classroom. Scientists often modify it by skipping steps, jumping back and forth between stages, or repeating a subset of actions because they are working with real-world conditions.

Some areas of science are more easily tested than others. For example, scientists studying what dinosaurs ate cannot conduct experiments on feeding dinosaurs (they are, of course, extinct) to test their hypotheses. When direct experimentation is not possible, scientists must adapt their approach to the scientific method. There are probably as many versions of the scientific method as scientists. But even when modified, the goal remains the same: to discover cause and effect relationships by asking questions, carefully gathering and examining evidence, and determining if all the available information can be combined into a logical answer.

That’s what is most exciting. Science is never finished. Every discovery leads to more questions, new mysteries, to something else that needs explaining.

As Albert Einstein once said, “The important thing is never to stop questioning.”