Guest Essay: You Are A Scientist

“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.

Image credit: xkcd.

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.

“Say what?!”

“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.

Comments

  1. #1 Anonymosity
    October 25, 2011

    Nice! This post gets passed along….

  2. #2 Charles Scurlock
    October 25, 2011

    I’m commenting here for two reasons. One is that I agree that thinking like a scientist is what makes you one, not just your degree(s0 or your special competencies and it is always nice to see that someone you respect sees something the same way you do. The other reason is that after looking through the comments on your own follow up to this one, it seemed to go off on a wild set of rants that led nowhere. This is too often what happens in comment forums.
    My only question about Ethan’s post is a small one. I may be too gentle in my thoughts, but I don’t think a dedicated scientist should say, categorically, “If you don’t agree with the big bang theory, you are wrong!” It would follow that you would then be forced to forgo any further testing or seeking to confirm its rightness, or seeking another explanation (theory, model) that might also fit the facts and observations.. It is after all a theory, and as Karl Popper assures us, we should continue to try to disprove it, that is, if we want to continue to be thought of as scientists.

  3. #3 Vince Whirlwind
    October 25, 2011

    Sure you should continue to try to disprove the “big bang”, but saying “it’s wrong” in the absence of any such dis-proof means your opinion is wrong. Unless by some wild con-incidence it’s right…

    That was an awesome post, though, apart from the obscure sporting(?) reference near the start. I get the feeling that bit was about some kind of parochial sport that nobody outside the USA plays.

  4. #4 Kevin Capizzi
    October 25, 2011

    As for the Shawne reference, being from the US, I couldn’t help but to point out how ingrained applied science is, otherwise known as this weird thing called “technology” (and in the case I chose: steroids and the abuse thereof) in even what accounts for the most stereotypically manly and jock-laden sport we have: American Football. Arguably that’s Hockey though. ;)

    Anyhow, look how applied science is largely taken for granted in our world, yet those ignorant of the process and how it really works still criticize some of the more widely-accepted abstract or intangible theories (with mountains of evidence accrued by good science) that happen to misalign with their already preconceived world-view. Merely because it hasn’t been applied? That’s kind of sad. And I suppose that was the inspiration behind what I wrote.

    Cheers!

  5. #5 https://me.yahoo.com/a/PxckwTE5h.aX2IKVBbVpSwG7pnzF1A--#8e772
    October 26, 2011

    Science isn’t defined by Popper. In most cases, it’s the anti-scientists who “try to disprove” things. After enough verification we can accept that a theory is a fact. Just because blowing-in-the-wind concepts like this bother philosophers like Popper is no reason for down-to-universe thinkers to avoid them.

    Frankly, I’m sick of people saying a theory can’t be a fact. That’s what the stickers say that creationists put on science textbooks.

  6. #6 Wow
    October 26, 2011

    > but I don’t think a dedicated scientist should say, categorically, “If you don’t agree with the big bang theory, you are wrong!”

    Uh, do you have an example of someone doing that?

    No?

    Then it looks like the only one who’s considered the scenario is you. And that only hypothetically. So why did you phrase it like a concrete statement of fact?

    > we should continue to try to disprove it, that is, if we want to continue to be thought of as scientists.

    However, we shouldn’t continue to act as if the theory was wrong.

    That, however, is what you want to happen.

  7. #7 DataJack (@Data_Jack)
    October 26, 2011

    As far as the “theories can/can’t be facts” argument – quite frankly, in science, a fact is an observation, nothing more. Theories are explanations. Explanations don’t “become” observations, they, well, _explain_ observations.

    The confusion arises (as it always does) when one attempts to mix colloquial and scientific terms.

    Colloquially, “fact” means something proven (this concept doesn’t even exist in science).

    So with enough supporting evidence (scientific facts), a scientific theory can “become” a colloquial fact. But… so what? Why mix the terms? By doing so, you are _still_ labeling scientific theories as less than what they are (the highest level of understanding in science), unless they are also a colloquial fact. Unnecessary.

  8. #8 Kevin Capizzi
    October 26, 2011

    Hear, hear, Wow and DataJack!

  9. #9 idealist707
    October 28, 2011

    The original essay gave us the connection between everyday life and ourselves as true scientists, like it or not.
    (You did not walk in front of the speeding car and be run over, so you did make an assumption based on previous experience with road kill, etc.)

    But it was DataJack who clearly put the fence between colloquial and scientific world, for they exist in parallel and with occasional contact, but with concepts which should not be used interchangeably.

  10. #10 Wow
    October 28, 2011

    I don’t know, idealist. We don’t have to see ourselves get killed in a car accident to know that we’d get killed in a car accident. That makes “we’d get killed in a car accident” a theory. Who’d dismiss the idea that you can get killed in a car accident because it was “just a theory”? Who’d say that you can’t say that until after you’ve been killed in a car accident? Who’d say that you should walk in front of speeding cars because “you can get killed in a car accident” hasn’t been proven *will* happen?

    Nobody.

    The abuse of “theory”, “fact” and “observations” are all pretty well understood.

    Well enough for the nuances to be abused to cause fake controversy (which is what DataJack points out) in fact.

    That requires quite a solid grasp of what the words mean. It also requires deliberate and wilful manipulation of the words too.

  11. #11 Kevin Capizzi
    October 28, 2011

    Getting killed in a car accident is a result observed by many real-world case scenarios. The evidence is already there and presented to you since you were very small. When you get behind the wheel, off to go pick up some donuts, that result is only one possible outcome the “theory of a car accident” predicts.

    But let’s play pretend and remove all knowledge of car accidents. If you had walked by an accident, after it happened, and found a dead person laying there, well, there’s your fact. From there, you can string all the pieces together, such as the hole in the windshield, the two smashed cars, etc. to draw the explanation as to why there’s a dead body, had you not even known what the concept of a “car accident” was. Of course, who doesn’t, right? But that’s why we use an obvious illustration to point out how you can derive a theory from a fact; which is good science.

  12. #12 Wow
    October 28, 2011

    “Getting killed in a car accident is a result observed by many real-world case scenarios.”

    I bet you a million quid you’ve never seen you getting killed by a car accident.

  13. #13 Kevin Capizzi
    October 28, 2011

    I was killed once, but I got better. ;)

  14. #14 Kevin Capizzi
    October 28, 2011

    Also, I don’t need to die personally do know that walking in front of a vehicle moving at high speeds *could* kill me. The evidence is plenty, and not just based on cars. I know just based on everyday experience that if I stub my toe, it’s going to hurt like hell. From there, it’s not hard to extrapolate that into: Soft, pink tissue + a ton of high speed metal = lots and lots of blood. I used the word “fact” to simply point out observations that are indisputable now (within reason).

  15. #15 Wow
    October 28, 2011

    “Also, I don’t need to die personally do know that walking in front of a vehicle moving at high speeds *could* kill me.”

    And that’s my point (and the point of the essayist).

    It’s a THEORY that you could be killed by walking in front of a vehicle moving at high speeds.

    You even showed the fact that the theory accounts for the relation: you did NOT say “Being hit by a car at high speeds could kill me”. You said that walking in front of a high speed vehicle could kill you.

    The man-in-the-street DOES know what theory is and they’re quite happy with a theory remaining unproven; in this case that walking in front of a vehicle moving at high speed could kill YOU, which has NEVER been proven. You could be “unbreakable”. But the miniscule chance of that is ignored and the statement is not leavened with “you could survive”.

    “I used the word “fact” to simply point out observations that are indisputable now”

    But like I said: YOU have never observed YOU being killed in a high speed collision.

    Yet, somehow you have no qualms with this theory guiding your actions and restricting your movements.

    NOTE: You DO need to die personally to know that YOU walking in front of a vehicle will kill you. That it can’t be PROVEN dangerous to you is no impediment to applying the theory to your actions and safety.

    And since we ALL do this (apart from the clinically insane), that shows we are ALL scientists.

  16. #16 Kevin Capizzi
    October 28, 2011

    Agreed! (I am the essayist) ;)

  17. #17 Wow
    October 28, 2011

    Ah, only “Kevin” was given in the text above for the essayist.

    So, basically, I’m saying that you agree with yourself.

    Not such an awe inspiring revelation as previously thought…
    :-(

  18. #18 Jim Thomerson
    October 29, 2011

    Use of the term proof is confusing sometime. For example, a military proving ground is actually a military testing ground.

    Someone, don’t recall who, suggested that a fact is a theory so strongly supported that it would be silly to try to disprove it given the present level of knowledge. I’m not sure that observation and fact are synonyms. Eye witness testimony is well known to be unreliable. Suppose ten people see something happen. How many different descriptions of the event would you expect to hear?

  19. #19 Wow
    October 31, 2011

    Proof in the old sense meant breaking.

    The armour would proof their wares by shooting a bullet at them, swinging a hammer, or other destruction testing.

    The saying “The exception proves the rule” makes no sense unless you understand that prove means “breaks” in this sense. And an exception to a rule definitely breaks the rule.

    PS a fact isn’t eyewitness testimony. We didn’t believe Pons when he said he saw an energy positive cold fusion event.

  20. #20 Duncan Ivry
    November 6, 2011

    “I’ll use the word “fact” to mean anything that’s self-evident, or directly observed to be painfully obvious.”

    Ethan and Kevin, I vehemently disagree. Nothing is self-evident, nothing can be observed directly to be (painfully) obvious. Yes, the world “outside” — stones, plants, animals, stars, light, etc. — is just there, but the facts we know about it — that there is a “sun in the sky” — are produced by more or less sophisticated processes, the science of physics being one of them.

    It starts with us not having any “direct” access to reality, because what our senses receive is transformed partly into frequence encoded neural pulses and partly into a chemical flow of molecules, and then everything bounces around in our brain in a very complicated way.

    Above that the “sun in the sky” has been something different for people in previous times, e.g. a god and not a star. Certain cultural processes produced the fact, that the sun is a star among others. This is only meaningful in connection with a whole system of conventions, procedures, facts, theories, etc., but it is some kind of endproduct of all this.

    Measurements made in experimental physics are based on facts and produce other facts. As an example, I remember when I measured the velocity of light back at university, it was possible only because a lot of facts were already known, but the experiment produced other facts. And you should remember the pertinent experiments which produce the facts, that the velocity of light is indeed the same in every direction and does not depend on the observer’s velocity.

    We human beings produce facts all the time and use them as input for something else, e.g. as physicists for producing statements about the future state of a system, and as engineers for constructing material things.

  21. #21 Wow
    November 7, 2011

    “Nothing is self-evident, nothing can be observed directly to be (painfully) obvious”

    Then you don’t exist, Dunc. You’re just a figment of someone’s reality.

  22. #22 Duncan Ivry
    November 7, 2011

    “Nothing is self-evident, nothing can be observed directly to be (painfully) obvious”

    Wow: “Then you don’t exist, Dunc. You’re just a figment of someone’s reality.”

    Funny, Wo, but not conclusive :-)

  23. #23 Wow
    November 7, 2011

    Don’t you mean “not evident”?
    :-P

    Though, seriously, since the root of evident is the same as evidence, then it HAS to be “that which is seen” and until you can reliably see something, you’re left with “It could be an illusion” or “Not for me” and then you can’t actually progress in understanding.

    And if you can’t progress in understanding and can’t rely on it, then to what extent does it actually exist?

    Whereas if you can, then it’s pretty evident it DOES exist.

    The evidence of a Giraffe hasn’t been seen by me in the actual visual and physical sense, but so much evidence exists at third hand (TV programs, books, stories from people who HAVE gone to a zoo and seen one), that it’s self-evident that the simplest solution is that the giraffe exists, and that mass hallucination is right out.

  24. #24 Kevin Capizzi
    November 8, 2011

    Hey Duncan. I hear you. That’s why I said for the “purposes of this illustration…”. I didn’t want my point to devolve into any philosophical rhetoric about what can *really* be known. And don’t get me wrong, I love philosophy too, but that’s a whole ‘nuther topic.

    So, I kept it simple, just this once. ;)

    P.S. Yes, of course a good theory will give you ways to make predictions about nature, or the nature of nature (which is in essence what physics is). And if you’re lucky, you can devise a way to create controlled experiments that will give you more evidence for your current theory, or even bring forth new “facts” as the basis for another theory. Also noted is that most theories are build upon the shoulders, or side-by-side with other theories. The beautiful thing about that is, every theory out there *must* corroborate with every other theory (eventually), unless you can explain how your new evidence undermines the established theories yours doesn’t jive with.

  25. #25 Duncan Ivry
    November 8, 2011

    Kevin, thank you for your answer. Because English is not my first language, I looked up, what it means, when someone starts with “I hear you”, and it’s this: “I have no interest in listening”. May be, I didn’t, as the author expressed it, “sandwich soft criticism” enough “between standard expression of praise”. Sorry, if this is the case, and: I quite understand what you say ;-)

  26. #26 Kevin Capizzi
    November 14, 2011

    Hi Duncan. Sorry about using some American slang (and for taking so long to notice your reply). “I hear you”, the way it’s usually used in conversation, is an expression that means “I understand your general point, but I think I have some valid disagreements that I’m going to elaborate on” in so few words. It’s not sarcasm or dismissal (as in, I’m not interested in your point!), But a casual and light-hearted way to start my counter-point, or converge toward clarification and understanding if we’re just talking past each other.

    Basically, it’s a genuine acknowledgement of your initial argument. ;)

  27. #27 Wow
    November 14, 2011

    “And if you’re lucky, you can devise a way to create controlled experiments that will give you more evidence for your current theory, or even bring forth new “facts” as the basis for another theory.”

    See, for example, the measurement of the orbits that Kepler used to test his theory of the orbits being based on the platonic solids.

  28. #28 Uncle B
    Toronto, Canada
    October 25, 2012

    Chinese video release tells of Thorium reactors for China – by 2017 – They will replace fossil fuels, for the entire Pan Eurasian reality. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UT2yYs5YJs Will an America stuck on Foreign Oil be able to bring prodict to market as cheaply as China will with these reactors in place? very doubtful. Can the American economy survive this blow – not likely. Will American Capital in Asia finance these reactors there – already being done. Will the “Third World” Cancer found in Detroit today spread across America? Already has as Californian cities declare bankruptcy, forcing whoredom over motherhood for American daughters, and sleazy sub-cultures to breed.
    Will the American Nuclear Establishment survive? Yes, in America alone, where they wield contol/ Will they sell another “time Bomb” to Japan? Yes! One more. but once the Chinese Thorium LFTR styled reactors are proven, America’s nuclear supremacy will be phased out world wide.
    Fact is: American “Ivory Towers” of “Grand savants” haven’t done much compared to the Asian effort, the Chinese effort alone, where a population of 1600 M ( against America’s 330 M) were searched for the best and the brightest minds, and then these were educated in the Sciences, then put to task on 10, 20, 30, even 40 year communist central planning committee plans in various fields of endeavor. All government sponsored, controled with “Special Breeding” involved?
    What I fear most, is not what China allows us to see, but what they keep hidden from us? Secret drone downed in Iran? How? Who? Why? “UFO’s” frightening American citizens – from China? New Chinese/Russian cloaking? Chinese “Space Station(s)” with very regular, routine visits? while American ride ancient Russian rockets now? WTF? All cars in America built with sub-assemblies made in China ? Even whole engines? Huh? Vancouver B.C., Canada teaches Mandarin in grade schools? Oh Yeah. Latest Canadian census reveals dominant languages are Asian? Woops? Hemp, legal to grow in Canada – you Google you see! Cars, Utility vehicles from moulded Hemp bodies – no welds, no smelting, no big heat, simply, quickly made from a renewable crop, up to 3 crops per year on a field, no fertilizers no pesticides needed, and no ugly mining for metals required? Universityof Alberta, Canada invention! Again, You Google. You see.
    American Scientist can’t keep f-35′s in the air? WTF? American Scientists cannot produce a durable utility car at prices competitive with Prus or Honda? WTF? Anybody here need NASA’s photos of the moom . of Mars and the Stars more than they need a cure for cancer? WTF?
    American Scintist need to learn to read Mandarin just to keep up to date? Yup!