Friday, May 18, 2012

The Scientific Method

I'm frequently astonished by a lot of people's attitudes towards science. Specifically how easily they can accept one set of science's findings without question, while simultaneously rejecting others.

My favourite example of this is when someone uses the Internet to make or share any anti-scientific claim. They do this with complete confidence in every piece of technology involved in that process: the keyboard they type on, the screen they read from, the processors, memory chips and other transistors inside their computer, their Internet connection... all the way to the screen of the person the message is intended for.

Seldom is a thought given to how any of that stuff was designed or invented. Nor to the fact that the very same scientific method was used to produce that technology as whatever it was they were denying in the first place, be it evolution, anthropogenic climate change, synthetic pharmaceuticals... you name it.

The assumption seems to be that there are different scientific methods depending on what kind of science we're talking about. Perhaps "assumption" is too strong a word, since that implies that someone's given it some thought and arrived at that conclusion, but I suspect it's not even that. It's more likely some kind of intuition... a gut feeling. In my experience, I find it more effective to think with my brain than with my digestive system.

What Is The Scientific Method?

Perhaps the education system has something to do with this failing. I remember being taught "science" in school that bore little to no resemblance to what I understand it to be today.

What I was taught to call the "Scientific Method" was something like:

  1. Produce the question (which we never did. It was always given to us by the teacher - thus eliminating any sort of creativity from the process)
  2. Define the method (again, given to us beforehand)
  3. Document the results
  4. Draw conclusions.
And that was it. 

Problem is, in reality the process doesn't stop there. After #4 you go to publication, peer review and then replication. These are arguably the most important parts of the process - the parts that distinguish science from things like alchemy and just making things up. Let's look at them quickly:

  1. Publication: after writing a fully detailed paper on your experiment, you submit it to a scientific journal to be published. The journal will have its panel of adjudicators (usually experienced volunteers from the branch of science the journal deals with) look through your work and get back to you with any questions, corrections or other criticism that may be required. After as many iterations of this process as are needed, your paper may be deemed worthy of publication.
  2. Peer review: Once published in the journal, your colleagues and counterparts in the rest of your field will have the opportunity of evaluating and commenting on it. Although some of the peer review has already happened while going through the publication phase, this is a much wider audience with a wider variety of expertise.
  3. Replication: If any of your colleagues or counterparts find your work interesting, they may try to replicate your results in their own labs. They'll try to match (or improve upon) your methodology, and will then publish their own results. If their results match yours, your study gains weight. If theirs don't match yours, then you obviously did something wrong, and your paper will be discredited. Back to the drawing board for you.

What Good Is It?

The thing about science and the scientific method is that it's self-correcting. If someone makes a mistake and produces dodgy results, their mistake will eventually be discredited and pushed aside in favour of other studies that are stronger. Any errors are found and eliminated by the scientific community as a whole. Good ideas are upheld, bad ideas fall away.

Science is the only way of knowing anything. By testing the world, and retesting, and retesting, we can eventually reach a point where we can start to make reliable predictions about it. This is how we learn as babies, too: by testing gravity again and again, we learn that things will tend to fall towards the ground, and not towards the sky. We'll learn that it hurts to touch hot things, and that some things reliably taste better than others.

A scientist

Science is the formalisation of that same process of discovery, of testing and retesting, and of drawing reliable conclusions. The scientific method includes collaboration with all other scientists everywhere, combining all the studies into a single literature so as to draw even more reliable conclusions.

But Science Gets Things Wrong

Well yes and no. Individual scientists (or teams of scientists) get things wrong all the time. The vast majority of hypotheses turn out to be false. Even whole communities of scientists can be mistaken about things.

But again, science is self-correcting. Those errors are eventually found and eliminated, making way for better and more accurate understanding.

Poison or panacea?
Ask a journalist.
Something that probably goes a long way to promoting the idea that science gets things wrong is the news headlines that constantly report this or that "breakthrough", which either yields nothing or is refuted again by some other "breakthrough" months or years later.

The problem here is that people in the media often understand the science no better than most people. They use the word "breakthrough" because it sells papers (or click-throughs or whatever), without really understanding what it means. 

Science seldom works in breakthroughs - sudden, paradigm-shifting new insights that change how things are done. They happen from time to time, but they're rare. Generally science works slowly, in a steady stream of small, incremental discoveries. Each new discovery contributing in a small way to the broader understanding of the world.

That right there is the biggest failing, in my opinion, of the scientific method as we know it today: it's slow. Really slow. Some erroneous ideas have to wait until their proponents literally die of old age before they're successfully overturned. While that may not be a big deal when it comes to cosmology or palaeontology,  it can be a big deal when it comes to medicine or agriculture. In those fields, slowness costs lives.

I imagine that its frustration with that slowness that drives people to embrace quackery. When they keep hearing "We can cure your disease in the next five to ten years." from the scienctific medicine fraternity, but the homeopath says "I can cure your disease right now." why would they want to wait? Especially if they're not equipped to discern that homeopathic interventions are a scam.

Science Isn't Perfect

Also as a result of the slow progress of science, in the short term it can't correct for unscrupulous behaviour of individual scientists, teams or organisations. Where science and industry meet (like in pharmaceuticals) the profit motive can inspire fallible human scientists to behave badly.

The pharmaceutical industry has a known history of pushing products through testing, not being adequately open with their results and that sort of thing. It's a problem, and people have died as a result. Science as it is today isn't quick enough to deal with that, so it falls on other institutions like courts and governments to place strict regulations on those sorts of industries.

Andrew Wakefield
Even scientific journals arent impentrable to the unethical. The case of Andrew Wakefield is a lesson in that respect, where a researcher behaved unethically, possibly forging his results and ultimately getting a wothless paper published in a highly prestigious journal. This error is largely responsible for the resurgence in anti-vaccine activism in the 21st century and has also cost lives. It took close to a decade for the journal to retract the paper, but the damage was already done.

But, again, science is self-correcting. Despite its current imperfections, it improves itself with time. As methods arise to compensate for these deficiencies, they too will be incorporated into the practice of science, and things will get better.

To misquote Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda: "[Science] isn't the best way to [know anything about the world], it's just the only way."