Tools of Science
by Christa Sadler
Science is under attack these days. From average citizens to the media and our policy makers, we’ve come to a place in our culture where what “I believe” is just as important as what the “experts” tell me. Although skepticism about science is nothing new, the proliferation of misinformation on the Internet, and social and mass media has become downright dangerous for us and our planet. So it seems like a good time to remind ourselves exactly what “science” is, and what it can and cannot do.
One of the most common questions scientists hear is: “Yes, but how do you know?” “How do you know that things looked a certain way millions of years ago?” “How do you know that this additive will be safe in food products? “How do you know this drug will help?” These are reasonable questions, especially when only the final results of a long scientific inquiry are presented—whether it’s in geology, botany, physics, or medicine. One thing that helps is to understand a little of how scientists come to their conclusions.
It is particularly important to understand that science is not a body of knowledge. Instead, it is a process that allows for ideas to be modified as new information becomes available. The process is called the scientific method and it is an elegant tool to help us make sense of the world in which we live—past, present, and future.
The scientific method consists of questions, observations, tests, hypotheses and changes to these hypotheses, discussions, models, and ongoing investigations. The method is rooted in observation of natural and physical phenomena and the development of hypotheses from those observations. A hypothesis doesn’t just come out of the blue; it is an educated guess based on the information at hand to explain an observation. Once it is developed, a hypothesis must be tested, whether in the laboratory, by searching for more information, by examining other similar phenomena, by running controlled tests, etc. These tests must be repeatable, so that others can try them as well, as a control.
Here’s the really important thing about testing a hypothesis: these tests are attempting to disprove the hypothesis, not prove it. While this may seem like a fine point, holding a hypothesis up to the light of skepticism ensures that scientists can avoid using only the evidence that supports an idea and may therefore skew the results.
If a hypothesis does not stand up to scrutiny, it will be modified and retested. If an idea cannot be disproven by rigorous testing over time, and if it can explain a large body of information, it becomes a scientific theory (such as the theories of plate tectonics or evolution). So a scientific theory is very different from how we use the word in everyday life, where we use it to mean more of a guess or a belief. A scientific theory has instead undergone sometimes decades of testing and examination and has not been able (yet!) to be disproven. This is really important for people, the media, and policy makers to understand.
The elegance of the scientific method is that it allows for continual modification of ideas as new methods, technologies, or information become available. An example is butter and margarine. As the medical establishment began to understand the connection between fats and heart disease back in the 1970s, butter was seen as a culprit. Doctors, and then the food industry, began pushing margarine. It wasn’t until scientists started to understand the effects of hydrogenated oils on our physiology that they realized margarine is much worse for the human body than an appropriate amount of butter. Another example comes from today’s headlines. The original estimates of extremely high mortality from the Coronavirus have now been revised downwards, thankfully, because new information has come to light (including how well social distancing has worked) to help scientists revise their models. Currently, medical experts say that there is no evidence that housepets can transmit COVID-19 to people, but if that evidence does occur, that statement will be revised. The important thing to remember is that if ideas change in science, that’s not a failure and it doesn’t mean the “experts” aren’t, in fact, experts. It means the method is working, and that we are remaining nimble enough to keep up with changes in technology, experience, and evidence.
One aspect of science that is not given enough airtime is the concept of evidence-based practice. In the simplest sense, being evidence-based means being supported by a large amount of empirical scientific research, and does not rely on anecdotal or the researcher’s professional experience. The Oregon Research Institute has a great description of what this means.
This is absolutely critical when considering things like food additives, beauty products, or medicines. For example, there was a lot of hype around hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19, but most of that hype was based on anecdotal evidence (basically stories). To be considered scientifically valid (and to guarantee safety and efficacy as much as possible for things like medicines and additives), testing must be rigorous, objective, controlled, and use a large enough number of subjects to account for variabilty in the results. When political leaders and media disregard the scientific evidence and the advice of medical experts either because they don’t understand how science works or for some other reason, it becomes extremely dangerous.
So how do we know what to believe in a world that contains an overabundance of information—some of it pretty bad? Start by doing your own research. Most products that are used by the public have available information that has been distilled from science-speak into normal-speak, so you don’t have to have a PhD to understand it. Don’t rely only on Wikipedia or WebMD or other popular sources. You can start there, but find other sources. And look closely at those sources. Where is your information coming from? Here are some things to look for:
Following these suggestions may not always provide the perfect answer, but it will help you more readily distinguish information that is more trustworthy from that which is backed by an agenda, bad science, or no science at all. And the more important the subject is (a medication, chemical, or a food additive, for instance), the more seriously you should take this process. It’s worth the effort for you, your family, and your planet!