Science works

Science may be one of the most significant advances in human history. Humans developed science as a way to overcome human fallacy and error. We misperceive, misunderstand, misremember, jump to false or illogical conclusions, and strenuously resist correcting beliefs and ideas we hold dear. Scientific methods are designed to minimize those errors and lead to accurate knowledge. Unfortunately, many people do not understand or trust science.

The scientific method starts with making an observation, thinking of a question, and forming a hypothesis that can be tested and proven false. Carefully designed research tries to eliminate all relevant factors except the one being studied. Research methods are used to minimize or eliminate systematic and random errors. Research results are published so hypotheses can be tested by other scientists to eliminate scientist bias. Results must be repeatable to gain credibility.

When enough related hypotheses are confirmed, scientists develop a scientific theory to explain how all these hypotheses and factual observations operate. Theories generate more hypotheses that are tested, and the theories are revised and refined as research continues.

One of the most common misunderstandings about science is the belief that a theory is just speculation, a hunch or an unproved assumption. That may be the public definition of the word, but in science, a theory is just the opposite. A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation based on a large number of consistent research findings. Although nothing in science is ever considered to be established with absolute certainty or be beyond revision, some scientific theories and laws accumulate so much evidence with so little opposition that they are beyond any reasonable doubt. For example, no reasonable person questions that the earth revolves around the sun rather than vice versa (heliocentric theory) or that diseases are caused by germs rather than angry gods (germ theory) or for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (Newton’s third law of motion).

Another common misunderstanding is the term scientific or natural law. A law in science is simply a description of a phenomenon that does not vary. Scientific laws describe occurrences, they do not explain why or how those occurrences happen, nor do they require something to happen in a certain way with punishment for noncompliance. Scientific laws are descriptive, not proscriptive. And unlike statutes, they do not require a law giver.

Scientific knowledge is not static. It continues to advance because it is self-correcting and based on facts, not faith. That is its strength. Any claim of eternal, absolute truth is arrogant and dangerous because it stops progress. Science is not perfect. It is subject to misuse. It can be hijacked and distorted by malevolent people. But it is the most reliable method we have for establishing accurate knowledge and correcting human error, false beliefs, superstition, and irrational thinking.

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