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Understanding Science

August 11, 2016

Sometimes I feel there is nothing more misunderstood in education today than science.


And I don’t mean that too few kids are learning about atoms and electrons. More people are learning about science today than ever before. But even among science’s proponents, the purpose of science is shockingly often misunderstood.

“Do you even science, bro?”


Who hasn’t seen this Internet meme? But, to answer the question it poses: no. Most people do not understand science, let alone do it. And just because you have taken an undergrad chemistry class doesn’t mean you understand it either.

Let’s do a pop quiz. Which of the following statements are most correct:
A.    The purpose of science is to use verifiable data to make conclusions about questions that we are sure are right.
B.    The purpose of science is to use verifiable data to draw conclusions about questions that are less wrong than our previous ones.

If you answered A, you got the wrong answer.


Science is not about being more right, it is about being less wrong.

The scientific method is taught in high school, but often by people who only understand it very approximately themselves.

Science is about building models of reality that come closer and closer and closer to estimating it accurately.
It’s about evaluating data, rejecting bad or faulty data, and systematically comparing observations with ideas (hypotheses) about the world.

It’s about throwing out the hypotheses that do not hold given valid observations, and accepting (retaining) hypotheses that do hold.

It’s about synthesizing the conclusions of hundreds, or thousands, of studies, to make a very informed, as-nearly-right-as-we’re-gonna-get-right-now, statement about reality.

And it is deeply and profoundly helpful for solving human problems.

Some fields of science are applied, others are not


To be fair, the applied sciences are more about "getting it right". After all, I don't want an engineer to build a bridge based on a theory that she isn't 100% confident in. I want her to be totally confident that she is right, her model is right, and I will be alright.


Some phenomena are more amenable to scientific inquiry. Something concrete and observable can yield much stronger statements than something abstract and difficulty observable.


But a scientific approach can be adopted for both, and the basic philosophy of science requires the ability to change one's mind according to the evidence.


This is remarkably difficult to do and to understand... but what a thrill it is to experience.


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