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Understanding science: the basics

26 May 2014, 21:15

Before we start on what science is and how it works, let’s first get something straight about scientists. Scientists are first and foremost human beings. They are very well-trained human beings working in a very specialised field, and that training is very rigorous and requires very high standards, but the scientists themselves are still very human creatures with all that being human implies.

They have their own motivations, biases, opinions, personalities, world views, pet theories and the like. Scientists can make mistakes same as everyone else. This is why we have something called “the scientific method”.

The scientific method is a systematic approach to practicing science. The scientific method is designed to eliminate human faults, biases and the like so that the results ultimately produced, and the theories they support are as clear as possible from contamination.

At school, you were probably taught that the scientific method looked something like this:

1) Ask a question

2) Formulate a hypothesis

3) Perform an experiment

4) Collect data

5) Draw conclusions

The above is true in a sense, but is oversimplified. Each of those can be very much expanded on, and they don’t necessarily happen in that sequence. Nothing happens in isolation. Let’s explore this a bit more and I’ll show you what I mean.

Like I said in my opening paragraph, scientists are human beings. We have motivations same as everyone else. That means we usually have a reason for asking the question in the first place. This motivation can be anything. An engineer can be faced with a specific problem. “I need a strong, light material to build a spacecraft.”

He can approach the scientific community with that need, and ask them for help. Material scientists will then tackle the problem. Or someone may just be curious about something. “I wonder what would happen if I mixed sulphur and iron and heated it?” The question can also be triggered by observation. “Holy smokes! Will you look at that geyser? I wonder why that water is so hot?”

Most often however, the question is triggered through study. Over the centuries, a lot has been written, and a lot has been figured out, but we’re a long way from knowing everything. Science builds on the knowledge we gained previously. In the early 1800’s Dalton proposed the atomic model for matter, because he observed that elements always reacted in whole ratios. This suggested to him that elements must be made up of tiny particles that reacted with each other.

This idea was built upon by subsequent scientists, through Thompson’s discovery that Dalton’s atoms were composted of positively and negatively charged particles, to Bohr’s proposal that the electrons Thompson discovered existed in distinct energy quanta around the atom through to Planck’s proposal that particles could exhibit both wave-like and particle-like behaviour. Each scientist built on the work of those who preceded them, and that is only made possible because:

1) that previous work is meticulously noted down and

2) is available for others to read.

This leads us right back to the scientific method. The scientific method is more than just a “recipe” for how to “do” science. It is also how to record the discoveries that are made, how those discoveries are presented, and how they’re made available to others. The “method” you learn about in school is how those discoveries are presented and transmitted. The scientist notes down the question he asked, and lists the sources he read that led him to asking the question. Thompson would have cited Dalton’s work, and Bohr would have cited Dalton and Thompson etc. The reporting is rigid, but the actual process isn’t. The process itself is much more fluid and dynamic.

Reading or observation or whatever other motivation you have can lead to the question being asked. You can then do one (or all) of several things. You can go read up more, or make observations. Observation and reading can lead you to refine the question, or lead to an entirely new question that you need to answer before you can even begin to answer your primary question. That whole process leads to the formulation of your hypothesis.

Let’s go back to the observational question I used as an example earlier. “The water that spews from the geyser is hot. Why?”

You know (because you either read up on it, observed it or even did a little experiment) that for water to heat up, you need a source of heat. Water doesn’t spontaneously heat itself after all. What are the various sources of heat that you know of? Fire can be a source of heat. Radiation would do it too. You’ve also seen volcanoes and you know that lava is hot. Lava comes from underground, or at least from volcanoes. Could there be a volcano under there that haven’t erupted yet?

Your hypothesis is your initial “possible explanation” for what you observed. Or your initial answer for your question.

Now you need to try and determine what is heating up that water. You can, based on your hypothesis, formulate an expected outcome. “If the water is heated by radiation, then the water will be radioactive.” That suggests a possible experiment you can perform to test your hypothesis. You can collect a sample of the water and test it for radioactivity. If you detect traces of radiation, then your hypothesis may be correct. You can’t be entirely sure of that though.

Let’s say you did indeed detect traces of radiation in the water, but further reading and consultation with other scientists tell you that the traces you discovered were not sufficient to heat water to the degree your readings suggest. That could indicate that radiation is not the primary source of the heat. There must be something down there.

At this point, you haven’t answered your primary question, but you have eliminated one source of heat. It’s not radiation. But even though it’s not radiation, you also know that there is a source of radiation down there because you detected traces of it in the water. In writing all that up, you’ll note down the experiments you performed, you’ll present your data, and the conclusions you drew from it. Now either you or someone else can follow up on what you’ve discovered.

It can even be from a completely unrelated field. A geologist can now come and look at your data, and hypothesise that the lava (magma) down there might contain radioactive particles. Now he can go and do some observations and experiments of his own based on your work, even though your primary question wasn’t even related to the composition of magna and rock layers. You just wanted to know why the water was hot.

As I’ve just illustrated, the process is very dynamic. It’s not linear, going from one process rigidly to the next. All the time, there’s interplay between questioning, reading, discussing, formulating, testing, interpreting, giving and receiving feedback, redoing your experiments to correct for contaminations (because hey, you might have used lead containers to collect your samples, thus contaminating the water) etc.

You don’t work in isolation, and this is one of the checks and balances that are in place within the framework of the scientific method. There will always be other scientists around to check that your data is accurate, that your experiments capture the correct data you need, data that are actually meaningful to the question you asked.

Your scientific paper means nothing if someone else can’t read what you did, and repeat it and get the same result you did. If they don’t, it usually means you made an error somewhere. Others may also come up with alternative explanations for your data. For example, going back to the geologist who used your data to conclude that the magma that might be heating the water contains radioactive particles. Another scientists might read it and conclude that instead of the magma itself being radioactive, it might simply be passing through a layer of rock that contains radioactive particles.

The data you collected doesn’t say anything about the source of the radiation, only that radiation is present. The first geologist might be correct, but given the available data, the second one’s theory is just as valid, and will continue to be valid until a more precise study can be done. Neither scientist is wrong until the data is in.

That is another thing about science. There can be many interpretations of any given data set, many theories that explain the same data set, and many scientists who support one theory or another. Both sets of scientists will formulate different ways to gather their supporting data, but at the end of the day you can’t argue with the data. The data is there. You can argue about the source of the radiation, but not about the actual presence of said radiation.

Here’s another thing about science: just because you were wrong doesn’t mean you’re a bad scientist, or that your work had no meaning. Even a negative result advances the boundaries of knowledge. When you hypothesised that radiation caused the water to heat up, and then proved it wasn’t radiation, we already know more than we did before.

We know it wasn’t radiation, so we can now go looking for another source of heat. Your discovery of a small amount of radiation was also significant because it allowed other scientists to ask other questions, leading to the great “source of radiation” debate.

Let’s say it turned out that the magma was passing through rock containing radioactive particles, so the first geologist was wrong. That doesn’t mean he was a bad scientist. His explanation was based on sound data. His interpretation was wrong, but his initial interpretation led to the counter argument, which turned out correct, which also advanced our knowledge.

Scientists can be wrong in their interpretations of data, but ultimately, science itself isn’t wrong. The process is sound. The method for generating and presenting the knowledge in a systematic way is sound and have proven itself time and again. WE as human practitioners can be wrong, but ultimately, the data will catch us out and force us back on the right path, because wrongly done science ultimately doesn’t reflect reality and therefore cannot lead to more knowledge.

(Note: This is the first in what will probably turn into a five part series on science. Hope you find it interesting. )

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