Geek Rants

On Science

  • March 31, 2014

There seems to be a habit of humans where we try to simplify discourse by replacing complicated concepts with simplified labels. While this might be convenient, I find that all too often it masks the original meaning when the label gets misconstrued over time.

Take “science.” What is it, exactly? A belief system? A joke? A thing of any sort? No, not at all. As I see it, it is a word that describes a methodology for discovering things. That’s it, nothing more.

Don’t want to take just my word for it? Here’s what Google (and we all know what an authority that source is!) says about it:

Google's definition of "science"

Google’s definition of “science”

Why do some people embrace the actions that take place under the umbrella of the term? Quite simply: if you attempt to gain new knowledge using a methodology other than the careful steps described in the so-called “scientific method” you leave yourself open to a high probability of forming incorrect conclusions based on invalid or insufficient evidence.

Here’s how to approach learning something new:

Steps of the scientific method

Steps of the scientific method

Once you’ve formed an evidence-based conclusion, you publish your findings—as well as the steps you undertook to get there. This is the point where the skeptics evaluate the solidity of your claims, including replicating your experiments to make sure the results are as you say. If the experiment isn’t verifiable and repeatable, you blew it. Note to skeptics: your rebuttal, if any, must follow the same constraints. That you “don’t believe it” or “don’t agree with it” does not qualify as an effective rebuttal unless you can back it up. If you are unqualified to understand the process that led to the disputed conclusion then you are also unqualified to refute it and must rely on the assistance of those who are. Unfortunately “qualified” also must include free of financial (or other) incentive to overstate one’s case.

There is a lot of “controversy” out there that is not valid controversy at all: the rebuttal in such cases is on shaky factual ground but is forcefully submitted as though it held equal footing. One also needs to be wary of the ad populum fallacy where something is perceived to have validity because “a lot” of people agree with it. Don’t confuse overwhelming consensus among qualified researchers with popularity; they are two very different things. Louder is not more correct.

Why should you care? Unless you are comfortable with being led astray into forming invalid conclusions about what’s around you, you do well to understand and follow “the method,” and to respect others who do the same.

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