We Must Defend the Scientific Process

We Must Defend the Scientific Process
December 1, 2000

As I pointed out in my editorial last month, a new paradigm is taking hold in environmental science. It requires us to prove negatives, eliminate unimaginably small concentrations of contaminants, be cautious of all things even if no evidence exists to justify the caution, and ignore costs and tradeoffs.

That new paradigm is ravaging the scientific process, which has brought society to its current level of amazing prosperity and safety. We must all defend the system that brought us here . . . and thereby ensure society does not re-enter a dark age, where science is dramatically reduced in its role to advance the human condition.

What is science?

A theory developed by a scientist cannot be accepted as part of scientific knowledge unless it is verified by the studies of other researchers. This characterization of science sets it apart from other branches of knowledge. Joseph Dauben, writing for the World Book Encyclopedia (1988), describes six methods commonly found in the development of scientific discoveries: (1) observing nature, (2) classifying data, (3) using logic, (4) forming a hypothesis, (5) conducting experiments, and (6) expressing findings mathematically.

Society today appears to be watering down the components of the scientific process and beginning to treat science as loosely in its relevance and acceptance as it does the humanities.

Daniel Koshland Jr., in a humorous piece in Science ("Two Plus Two Equals Five," 1990), emphasized this point in a tongue-in-cheek interview in which a scientist defends his mandate to tell people that two plus two equals four:

That's exactly where your views are wrong, a public relations expert tells the scientist. A recent poll shows that 50 percent of the people think two plus two equals five and almost every TV network agrees with them. These people have rights; they believe, sincerely, that two plus two equals five and you take no account of their wishes and desires. Simply imposing two plus two equals four on them is not democracy.

And, indeed, it is not democracy. But it is science, and it is not amusing to recognize that the public fails to understand what science is.

Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. Science invites us to let the facts in even when they don't conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges us to maintain a fine balance between a sincere openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything.

No one has defined science more eloquently than Thomas C. Chamberlin, one of the greatest geologists who ever lived. Writing for the Journal of Geology in 1897, Chamberlin explained:

In developing the multiple hypothesis, the effort is to bring up into view every rational explanation of the phenomenon in hand and to develop every tenable hypothesis relative to its nature, cause or origin, and to give all of these as impartially as possible a working form and a due place in the investigation.

Science is a never-ending search for truth. We may not always reach our goal, but the search is satisfying nevertheless.

Why science is important

One way to view science is as an approach to thinking that minimizes the chance of being misled by an observation. In other words, it is a set of rules to avoid being fooled. The scientific method teaches us to make many observations and examine them as a group. Bad science develops rules based on single observations. The poor scientist, the pseudoscientist, and the public suffer a high probability of being fooled in this manner.

Today, thanks partly to the rapid pace of technological change, there is a great need for reliable observation on what is happening in the real world, for testable hypotheses and well-designed experiments. Concurrently, the field of statistics can be a valuable servant of science by offering rules for determining the need for multiple observations required to yield a high probability of truth.

It is also important to differentiate science from technology. Although they are intimately related, they are different. Science is the systematic search for new knowledge; technology is the practical application of that knowledge. Science discovers that electricity can be changed into light; technology engineers a practical light bulb. A technologist can tell you how light bulbs are made; a scientist can explain how they give light.

While Aristotle in his day, and we in our day, can observe a phenomenon closely and think we know what's going on, if we don't make careful measurements, we are likely to be fooled. This may be a common enough scientific principle now, but it took a great deal of effort for Galileo to introduce it in the sixteenth century, and for Lavoisier to finally establish it as recently as the eighteenth century.

The scientific method and the credibility of scientists were celebrated throughout much of the twentieth century, and their ascendancy explains much of the growth of prosperity and spread of freedom around the world. But today, at the start of the twenty-first century, the scientific method is confronted in politics and in the popular press with a “new paradigm” that is vastly inferior and at odds with the very definitions of science given earlier. Our side, the advocates of science defined as hundreds of thousands of working scientists around the world would define it, are losing the debate. We’re losing because we often choose not to participate.

The consequences of losing this debate are simply too great for us to sit in our labs and libraries and pretend it doesn’t affect us. It does. It poses a grave threat to our prosperity and freedom. We are at risk of losing what Galileo, Lavoisier, and generations of scientists fought to build. That is why we must defend the scientific method.