Science is much more than a collection of facts; it’s a way of thinking. In a world dominated by science, scientific literacy is essential to making wise decisions – from our health to our voting choices.
Humans have long tried to explain the world around us. Our ancestors often attributed natural phenomena such as disease, storms, or famine to the work of supernatural forces such as witches, demons, angry gods, or the spirits of the dead. We perceive patterns even when they are not real, and jump to conclusions based on our biases, emotions, expectations, and desires.
While the human brain is capable of amazing feats, it is also remarkably prone to error. It is designed for survival and reproduction, not to help us determine the efficacy and safety of a vaccine or to determine long-term changes in global climate.
Personal experiences and emotional anecdotes can easily deceive us, no matter how convincing they may seem. Therefore, science is the best way we have found to avoid being wrong, because the process is designed to correct our limited perceptions and erroneous thoughts.
WHAT IS SCIENCE?
There are many misconceptions about science, starting with the definition. And the way science is taught is part of the problem.
Science is a community of experts who use a variety of methods to gather evidence and question claims. It is a way of learning about the physical world and trying to get closer to the truth by measuring our explanations against reality and critically questioning the evidence.
An essential foundation of science is skepticism, which is simply insisting on the evidence before accepting a claim. Scientists are open to all claims, but they make their acceptance dependent on the strength and quality of the evidence.
It is important to know that science cannot answer all questions. Science is limited to what it can test and potentially falsify. This means that evidence must be observable, measurable, and repeatable. For example, science cannot answer subjective questions such as personal preferences or moral judgments. Also, supernatural explanations, such as gods, spirits, or vague “energy” forces, are not observable and therefore not verifiable. (There are exceptions, such as claims to control supernatural abilities, and those that leave physical evidence.)
BUILDING SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE
The goal of science is to understand and explain the natural world with laws, theories, models, and facts. It is difficult to answer these questions, of course, but one of the greatest strengths of science is that it has the humility to acknowledge that we can never be completely certain. Scientific knowledge is tentative: science does not prove, it reduces uncertainty. There is always the possibility that we are wrong, so we leave open the possibility of changing our minds with evidence.
Scientific knowledge evolves over time as we dive deeper into existing knowledge and venture into new territory. Science is always uncertain to some degree, but it is very unlikely that well-established knowledge that has been repeatedly and independently confirmed will be completely overturned.
FINDING RELIABLE SCIENTIFIC INFORMATION
While science is the most reliable way to learn about the natural world, it cannot help us if we do not know how to use scientific information properly.
Your most important line of defense is healthy skepticism, not only about news or studies but also about your own beliefs. No one can fool us as much as we can fool ourselves: We are most likely to fall for misinformation when we want (or don’t want) something to be true.
SCIENTIFIC LITERATURE IS FOR EXPERTS
Scientists publish their findings in peer-reviewed journals, also known as scientific literature. Remember that science is a social process, and these journals are an important tool for experts to communicate with other experts.
But experts are only experts in their field, and scientists often specialize in very narrow subfields. It takes extensive training and experience to be able to assess the quality of a study and have the background knowledge to place it in the context of the body of evidence.
Reviewed literature is theoretically the best source of scientific information, but only if you have the expertise to understand and evaluate it.
Therefore, be careful when using Google Scholar to find scientific information. If you type in the keywords you want and find one or two titles that seem to support the conclusion you want, that’s a good way to be misled. If you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s easy to fool yourself…even in the scientific literature.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS
After the last science class, most people only hear about science in the news. However, the “news” usually focuses on new and newsworthy findings, while established science is not “news.”
In addition, news stories often exaggerate or sensationalize the results of individual studies, giving consumers the impression that scientists are constantly “flip-flopping” or “changing their minds.”
So the next time you hear about a “scientific breakthrough” that “changes everything,” remember that a single study is never enough to confirm or disprove a conclusion. It’s best to evaluate each study in the broader context of the existing literature. And if the results are truly groundbreaking, withhold judgment until more evidence is available.
HOW TO DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH
The phrase “do your own research” is everywhere these days. At first glance, it seems legitimate: What could be wrong with seeking out information and forming your own opinion?
The problem is that access to information is not enough. Because of confirmation bias, we seek information that confirms what we already believe to be true. The danger, however, is that we end up cherry-picking individual studies or experts, missing the big picture, and misleading ourselves.
If the goal is to find the most accurate representation of scientific evidence, use neutral (not introductory or inflammatory) search terms and make sure you use reliable sources.
YOUR BEST BET IS TO LOOK FOR A CONSENSUS IF ONE HAS EMERGED.
This article is based on “Science: what it is, how it works, and why it matters” by Skeptical Science from the Thinking is Power website maintained by Melanie Trecek-King where she regularly writes about many aspects of critical thinking in an effort to provide accessible and engaging critical thinking information to the general public. Please see this overview to find links to other reposts from Thinking is Power.
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