“In science, even when you’re convinced that you know the right answer, you keep testing your understanding in new ways. You keep looking for phenomena that might do something different than what your best ideas and theories predict. As long as there’s a Universe out there to investigate, science doesn’t end.” -Ethan Siegel
We’ve talked many times here about how the term theory gets abused by non-scientists, what scientific theories do and do not do, and of course, just yesterday, how important science and scientists actually are for progress in our quest to understand the Universe.
Well, last month, I had the pleasure of encountering the following essay, written by Kevin Capizzi. It was such a thing of beauty, clarity and simplicity that I contacted him and asked him for permission to reproduce it. And while I thought about adding illustrations, links, or interjecting my own thoughts, I really think it’s perfect the way it was written. So without further ado, enjoy the following bit of inspired writing. (And thank you, Kevin!)
You Are a Scientist.
No, really, you are. And, listen, I know science isn’t easy to stomach for most, but it’s not only that we’re surrounded by it in almost every way, it’s the way we all live our lives.
Science gets a bad rap. But why? Because it’s for nerds? Tell that to Shawne Merriman next time he juices up for another season with the Bills.
Okay, that’s a bad example. But he can flick your head off with his pinky, so don’t call him a nerd.
Anyway, back to why you’re a scientist. It’s simple really: You base every action, every decision, every bowel movement on what most people would call “facts.” Now, it’s not uncommon, to think that facts are the product, the very end-game of a proven theory. But I have news for you, pally: It’s the other way around.
“I know, right!”
For the purposes of this illustration, I’ll use the word “fact” to mean anything that’s self-evident, or directly observed to be painfully obvious. Like, the sun in the sky (or that gnarly mole on your back you should really get checked). We’ll say that’s a “fact”, and that’s where the science actually starts.
Also, let’s clear the air right now — a theory is never “proven” in the sense most people think, and I think this is where those who are dubious about controversial theories find umbrage: In the very thing that isn’t even a part of the scientific method. That’s right — theories are never “proven”. What you should be calling “proof”, if anything, is what you find as evidence to support your theory, but I digress…
Let’s say you’re at a restaurant to meet a friend for lunch. It’s a fact you have a friend (hopefully), it’s also a fact that you know he can drive. But this is where things start to get shaky. You know what kind of car he drives — that silver SUV, and so this is what you expect to see pull into the lot as you’re looking out the window waiting for him to arrive. You’ve just formed a hypothesis, and you didn’t even know it, you huge, dorky nerd, you.
It’s a hypothesis, because you’re not sure if he took his wife’s car for some reason. Or, maybe he sold it last week for a new one, and didn’t tell you. Or maybe it broke down, and he hitchhiked to the restaurant, because that’s what kind of a friend he truly is.
Ahh! There it is, the familiar silver SUV. You now have a piece of evidence, but it’s not very strong, is it? Maybe some stranger happens to be pulling in the lot in the same kind of vehicle. That is, until it parks, the door opens, and out walks your friend. Ala-Shazam, your hypothesis has just been upgraded to a theory. It’s a theory, because you have evidence that would be very hard to refute. Sure, it could be it’s someone who looks extremely like him. It could be an impostor. That’s extremely unlikely, so it’s safe to file that one under E for Evidence.
Now, here he comes in through the door, sits down, and you guys pick up right where you left off. Even more evidence. Your theory is practically water-tight. You recall old times, some inside jokes, even the food he orders is his usual dish. The evidence is so overwhelming now that this is truly your friend, to come up with another hypothesis as to fit in with all the evidence you’ve now acquired would bring you into the realm of him having to be a clone who was made by aliens to deceive you in some complex plan that involves you to take over the world. I exaggerate, but now you see how a theory can never be “proven”. Where would you stop? How far could you even take the accumulation of evidence to be able to say with 100% absolute certainty this is truly your friend? What are you going to do, test his DNA? No, of course not, that’s hella expensive (and quite a lengthy process). And it’s still not going to bring you to 100% certainty.
And that is why you are a scientist. That is why most theories are as accepted as they are now, because all the evidence acquired to support your theory, not only has to work within the bounds of your original hypothesis, but must corroborate with every other theory in existence.
That is why most substantial, and yes, even controversial scientific theories are widely accepted.
It’s also why theories sometimes change or are refined over time. Even over centuries as new evidence comes to light, it might send a ripple throughout all disciplines and change our entire world view (Such as when Einstein revolutionized physics, not by throwing out Newtonian, or “classical” physics, but by refining it even further with his theories on Special and General Relativity; allowing you to use your GPS to find the nearest Taco Bell).
The irony here is that many critics of science, and its theories is that this is some sort of weakness, but it’s really its strongest feature. The empirical evidence, direct or indirect observation, and repeatable experimentation allow theories to be tested over and over, even by you (assuming you have the means and knowhow) so that it can be refined ever further and allow room for a big picture change, if required. And, sometimes it is.
So, next time you hear, “It’s a scientific fact”, raise that eyebrow, because science doesn’t go there; a fact is not an end-product of a theory but the seed that starts it all off.
Now go forth and nerd out. It’s just the way we all roll.