Feedback Friday: The Practice of Science

Hey everyone!  This past week my friend Jackson (if you haven’t checked out his blog Think Only Today, you really are missing out) sent me an excellent TED Talk by Naomi Oreskes about why we should believe science.  In response to Ms. Oreskes’ wonderful argument, I decided to go deeper in depth on a topic I feel she shortchanges: what is the actual practice of science like.

When most people think about science, they think of a solitary researcher working late hours in a lab.  He—most people assume scientists to be male— has a crazy idea that none but he believes.  All he has ever wanted is to be right about this one thing.  He is a mad fanatic, a lovable nebbish, a lonely crusader for truth who spends his days alone.  Science, to most people, is the lonely late night trudge forever forward.

Now, there are some scientists who work that way, and I say more power to them.  But that’s not what I see as science.  To me, science is two researchers walking away from the lab bench to make a cup of tea.  One researcher, while starting the kettle, mentions to the other that something is wrong with their experiments—they keep getting results that don’t fit with the generally accepted theory.  The other researcher admits that they too have had strange results, though on different experiments.  They both pull out their lab notebooks and carefully go over their procedures and data, looking for mistakes or omissions.  However, they find none. The two researchers, now intrigued by this anomaly, begin looking for ways to isolate it.  It might just be a fluke of their lab, or it might be a landmark discovery.  They don’t know, but they’re sure as hell going to find out.

What about this scenario makes it the essence of science for me?  Several things.  First, lets look at how they arrived at their new research area.  There wasn’t a genius in a room who decreed to look for something—though that is how it sometimes happens.  More frequently, someone makes a mistake, or something happens that isn’t what was expected.  Science isn’t a long march of geniuses; science is a long string of mistakes and unexpected results that illuminate the limits of our current understandings.  In the words of Isaac Asimov, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…'”.

For the second thing that makes this scenario the essence of science in my opinion is what the researchers did once they got strange results: they talked about it openly with their colleagues.  In most fields, if something doesn’t go right, you just sweep it under the rug.  In science, however, you share it, because it might be a harbinger of new knowledge.

The third and, in my opinion, most important factor in this anecdote is what happened as soon as the researchers realized they had the same anomaly: they immediately looked for holes in their results.  One of the most important rules of science is to readily admit that you are completely and utterly wrong. As the biologist E.O. Wilson writes beautifully in his book Letters To A Young Scientist (which I believe everyone entering a career in science needs to read), “You will make mistakes.  Try not to make big ones.  Whatever the case, admit them and move on.”

So that, in a nutshell, is my science.  Not a lone rogue voraciously following a single idea he dreamed up, but a community making mistakes and learning from them.  It’s a group of people who love learning, and together wonder infinitely about the infinite wonder that is life.

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