domingo, 14 de febrero de 2010

What the heck is science anyway?

This is a loose translation and a repost from the first part of an entry I have previously written in spanish: Ciencia Mala.

A few days ago my internet broke at home and, apparently, that turned out to be good news for this blog. Without digg and facebook around to distract me, I finally had a chance to write one of those supposedly ‘interesting posts’ that I've been willing to write since long ago.

Regular readers know about my fascination with science, the research that backs it up, and the technology that it enables. I'm really passionate about these topics, and not only because they are always cool and exciting (they indeed are!), but mostly because of the very real impact they can make in your everyday choices in life. “How is that?”, you ask. Let's start with a much more basic question first,

What the heck is science anyway?

From very early in the history of humanity, we human beings started to realize our ability to find patterns and use them to give explanations to whatever incidents were happening around us. Look! When we dance like this, we can make it start raining! We also found, though, that our explanations very often turned out to be particularly bad and didn't really work. Damn, we've been dancing for three weeks already, and no single raindrop :-(.

Science is a method that we came up with in order to, setting aside our own subjective biasses and preconceptions, test our explanations and distinguish the ‘good’ ones from the ‘bad’ ones.

And the method of science works more ore less like this:
  1. We find something curious happening in the world and we want to explain it: Why is it that x happens?
  2. We make some observations, try to find some patterns (we're good at those!), and make up some ‘theory’ or ‘guess’ about what is going on: Aha! When y happens, then it always follows x!
  3. We analyze our theory and design some experiments to prove that our theory is wrong: Can I make y without x happening?
  4. Then we do the experiments. If it turns out that our theory is wrong, we discard it, go back to step 1 (maybe we didn't ask the right question?), and repeat the whole process. If our experiments seem to work, we go back to step 3.
You might notice that this process is rather peculiar. First, the experiments are not designed to confirm our theory, but to try to prove it wrong! We do this because, no matter how many thousands or millions or examples we found that agree with our theory, it is enough to find one against it in order to show it doesn't work. The goal of this scientific method is to find the flawed explanations, so that we can quickly discard them and focus on the ones that seem more promising.

Moreover, notice that the method never stops! The ‘best’ explanations are the ones that keep moving between steps 3 and 4 as long as possible. But the scientific method will never tell us, with absolute certainty, that the explanation we currently is the ‘truth’ or the ‘real one’. Science is not about knowing the answers to everything, but about being humble enough to admit: “We don't really know, but these are the best explanations we have so far ...”

Another property of science is that, moreover, criticism to the current theories and ideas is more than welcome. Being skeptic is, in fact, the engine of the scientific method. Suddenly finding solid evidence showing that one of or best theories was actually wrong is not a failure that we should hide and be ashamed of. Quite the oposite, this would represent a breakthrough, an opportunity to advance science and our understanding of the world around us.

But the greatest power from science comes from the fact that the good explanations can also become useful in a very practical sense. A good explanation is useful because it also allows us to predict the future. An explanation might allow us to predict the occurrence of natural events, or the consequences that our actions might have. It is also science the one that has helped us to understand so much about the world we live in, and to develop the technology that we increasingly begin to take for granted.

But science is not just something that weird guys with glasses and lab coats do to provide the rest of us with the fruits of understanding and technology. Science is quite relevant for each and everyone of us. Science teaches us that it is not enough to have ‘hunches’, and that we shouldn't take claims from others at at face value. We should be skeptical of every claim and always try to think about alternative explanations that have to be ruled out before jumping to a conclusion. Try to remember that, and apply it routinely in your everyday life!

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