What Do We Mean When We Say Science?
Why we can’t “believe in” science despite its astonishing accomplishments
It’s a common occurrence to see some claim made in the media conjoined with the stock phrase “according to a scientist” or “a scientist says.” This is supposed to lend an air of credibility to the sensationalist misinformation that invariably follows. For the most part this ruse works, largely because most people regard “science” as a modern belief system that by some unaccountable factor is more authoritative than claims made by holy books or astrologers or Tarot cards.
“Science” for most people, therefore, is simply a totem. The average person has no understanding of what science is, nor why it’s been granted authority in our modern world. A great many people (too many people) believe that “science” is merely a belief system like any other and as such it’s a matter of personal choice. Such people argue endlessly that their particular belief system, whether it’s the prognosticative powers of fairies, the influence of the stars, the arrangement of a deck of cards, or even patterns in tea-leaves, are “just as good as” anything science provides.
Science, we are told repeatedly by such folk, is just as arbitrary as any other belief and just as devoid of any firm foundation as the most risible children’s tale.
All these people and all those who think like them are, to put it as plainly and simply as possible, as wrong as it is possible to be.
We’re going to look at what “science” actually is, how it works, and why it’s the only method we have of understanding the universe in which we briefly live.
Let’s begin with what science is not.
Science is not about beliefs. Science is not about assertions made by authority figures that are accepted by other scientists simply because those authoritative scientists have better lab coats or more prizes on their shelves. Science is not about shouting more loudly than competing voices.
Of course all these things occur, because science is done by people and people are human and humans behave in reliably foolish ways. But the great triumph of science is that none of our stock silly self-defeating human behaviors can prevent science from working over the longer term. This is because at the very basis of all true science are the following elements:
1. Observation of phenomena
2. Explanation of why and how those phenomena occur that fit all available data better than any other explanation
3. Novel predictions about new phenomena not yet closely observed
4. Close observation of phenomena to either confirm or disprove those novel predictions
This is of course to simplify the process, but in essence this is how science works despite all the manifest human imperfections and follies that get in the way.
If even the most august professor makes a claim, at some point that claim must stand up to scrutiny. If it fails, it will be discarded no matter how many prestigious prizes or eloquent speeches or clever mathematics the professor may marshal to support the claim.
This is what distinguishes science from mere belief systems. If I believe that Jupiter occluding Orion will cause a tall dark handsome stranger to give me unexpected news because I’m a Pisces born under the influence of Mars, I can neither explain how this magical phenomenon is supposed to operate nor can I prove it empirically over and over and over again. Every time my belief system fails to deliver the goods I will simply find “reasons” why the test was unfair, the results atypical, or storm off in a huff protesting loudly about patriarchal belief systems that fail to take into proper account magic pixie dust, the phase of the moon, and whatever other nonsense I may have rattling around inside my head.
Similarly, religionists who imagine that evolution is just a belief akin to their own beliefs in gods, goblins, ghouls and ghosts fail completely to understand the fundamental difference between a pattern of activity based on empiricism versus a set of empty beliefs based on proof-free assertions. Whereas the babble contained in holy books is nothing more than the folk tales of illiterate innumerate goat-herders who knew precisely nothing whatsoever about the universe in which they lived, science is constructed step-by-step from the ground up. At each step, refutable claims are made and survive only as long as refutation is not accomplished. And because science is about continuous discovery and continuous understanding, science is always changing.
There is no scientific equivalent of a holy book of supposedly infallible wisdom for all time, or an instruction manual regarding how to interpret the cards or the position of the stars now and forever into the future. This is because yesterday’s good-enough theory becomes superseded by today’s slightly-better theory. Science is an ongoing process of discovery. And when new information comes to light, clever people change their minds. Clever people don’t scream “heretic!” and try to suppress new knowledge because it contradicts their mythological beliefs.
Astronomy is often cited as the obvious exemplar of scientific progress. For thousands of years people had babbled on about “perfection” which was supposedly embodied in spheres and circles. Thus, it was thought, the celestial lights we see when we look up at a clear night sky must necessarily be perfect (because the lights are in the heavens, above corrupt material Earth) and so everything must be an arrangement of spheres and circles. This was a pure belief system, and like all belief systems it was woefully inadequate as a means of interacting with reality.
From Plato to Ptolemy, spheres and circles were imposed on spheres and circles in an increasingly desperate attempt to replicate the observed movement of the stars and planets. The fact that none of these models really described what people saw was regarded not as evidence of the models’ failure but as evidence that the models were not complicated enough. Only when Copernicus, in what can only be described as one of the most astonishing and impressive feats of mental agility in the history of humankind, threw out the entire notion of perfection was he able to explain what people had observed. The heavens were not perfect and the Earth was not at the center of the universe. The sun was at the center and the planets all went around the sun in elliptical orbits.
The point wasn’t that Copernicus offered a novel way to read the cards or that he drew up a horoscope in which it was written that it was short, not tall, dark handsome men who’d show up bearing unexpected news. The point was that Copernicus looked at the data and thought carefully about what the data was telling him. And then he built a theoretical model that matched and explained the observations.
Later on, Newton theorized the force that holds the planets in their orbits and which also holds us down on the surface of the Earth: gravity. This, added to Copernicus’ model, provided an elegant way to explain what we see by means of simple laws of motion. But Newton’s gravity wasn’t about belief. It was accepted only because the mathematics worked. The same mathematics that explained why the Moon doesn’t fly away from the Earth explained why an apple when dropped accelerates at a constant rate toward the ground.
Or at least, Newton’s mathematics nearly worked. The problem of Mercury’s orbit remained a conundrum until Einstein rethought the whole business of space and time to show how mass warps spacetime. His field equations successfully accounted for Mercury’s aberrant orbit and better yet, they predicted a wholly novel phenomenon. According to General Relativity, mass warps spacetime and thus forces light to follow a geodesic (defined as the path along a curved surface where the derivative of the tangent linen is zero) rather than follow a pure straight line. In 1919 Eddington took advantage of a solar eclipse and some photographic apparatus to show that Einstein’s equations correctly predicted the time and location of starlight emerging from “behind” the sun several seconds before Newtonian physics would have indicated possible. If Eddington’s images had contradicted Einstein’s equations, few people today would remember Einstein’s name.
Today we know that General Relativity isn’t the last word in cosmology because it can’t be reconciled with quantum mechanics, which has passed equally stringent proof-tests. Somewhere out there in the future is a better theory that explains both relativistic and quantum phenomenon in a single coherent account, and that makes novel predictions that can be tested and either validated or falsified.
Of course, not all science is so readily subject to proof-tests. Cellular biology, for example, is more a problem of careful explication than of grand unifying theories. So-called “social sciences” are rarely scientific in any way and thus don’t really deserve the name. So not every so-called science is actually scientific, and not every scientist is actually doing science.
But many are. And it is their work that shapes our world. Belief in magic pixies or the influence of the stars or Tarot cards give us nothing. No one ever calculated the laminar flow necessary over a wing surface to provide sufficient lift to enable a 10,000 metric ton passenger aircraft to fly by consulting an astrologer. Engineers use the Einstein field equations to compensate for time dilation so as to make GPS systems work; nobody imagines that gazing at tea-leaves or asking what star sign the lead engineer was born under will lead to anything but raucous laughter. The engineers who design computer chips rely on quantum mechanics to prevent unwanted effects at sub-micron scales; consulting astrological charts would be a pointless endeavor.
In short, science is real whereas beliefs are intrinsically unreal.
Science is a process of continual discovery by means of which previous ideas are either refined or replaced by something better. Beliefs, conversely, are simplistic, empty, and barren. They yield nothing except a modest income to those who prey on the gullibility and simple-mindedness of ignorant and foolish people.
Science is at heart a process. It is conducted by flawed and imperfect humans and so very often a great deal of science is worthless junk at best and misleading nonsense at worst. It often takes far too long for a good theory to be accepted and conversely it’s far too easy for those with the right connections to promote less adequate ideas. Scientists, like the rest of us, are subject to herd mentality and they follow the money, which means a great deal of time is often spent on things of no import while truly significant matters remain untouched.
But science is the only method we’ve ever invented that lets us achieve real things in the real world. No holy book about magic pixies ever provided the details necessary to prove that mass really does warp spacetime. No astrological chart ever enabled NASA to put a tiny probe into a precise orbit around another planet hundreds of millions of kilometers away. No Tarot card ever revealed the paradox of the double-split experiment.
Because our tiny ape-brains aren’t evolved to do thinking, we naturally prefer simple-minded ideas and we often find complex reality too confusing and difficult to understand. But just because most people can’t understand something doesn’t make that thing untrue. A worm and a Trump may not understand calculus, but that doesn’t mean calculus is “just a belief system.” Without calculus all the bridges and airplanes and motor vehicles and tall buildings and cellular phones and computers and practically everything else we see around us would be impossible. You can’t do real-world things using beliefs.
The fundamental difference between science and mere beliefs is that science enables us to engage with reality. We don’t “believe in” science. We do science.
Beliefs merely enable us to hide in the darkness like a child hiding underneath its bed.
That’s all the difference in the universe.