First of all, I don't know why humans are so determined to intellectually understand the world. Maybe understanding helps us innovate which helps us survive better. Maybe we just have too much spare time. It’s a mystery.
But I do know that one of the most popular modern ways to understand more about the world is SCIENCE.
Which, as it turns out, isn't this:
Instead, as recently revealed to me by my clever sciencey housemate (I am a non-scientist in a house of scientists), science is more of a philosophy that says (roughly):
The authority for knowledge is observable data, and as data changes, ‘knowledge’ can change.
Basically, knowledge is provisional - not absolute.
Which is cool, because it means that as we get more and more data from just observing stuff, knowledge can change and become more comprehensive.
This is different from the pre-Scientific Revolution days where the knowledge didn’t get its authority from data but rather from things like religious texts, and so data contradicting 'knowledge' had to be explained to fit the knowledge.
In detective terms: evidence (back then) had to be somehow modified to fit the theory. Science (now) is rather about modifying the theory to fit the evidence.
Despite this ‘provisional’ essence of science, non-scientist plebs like me are always tempted to understand ‘knowledge’ or ‘scientific theories’ as being permanently, deeply, irrefutably true. Because duh it's SCIENCE.
Which suggests that we have a misperception of the nature of science and scientists.
Scientists are people (not fact machines) who study all kinds of data and draw conclusions (smart guesses) about what that data could mean.
It is possible for people to do this very skilfully, and those people are amazing. But it’s also possible to misinterpret data, or not have all the data, or to analyse data with an ulterior motive.
There IS such a thing as ‘bad’ science - and, as explained in this video, the fact that it’s called ‘science’ in the hypothetical online article titled ‘Does Chocolate Cure Cancer?’ - doesn’t automatically tell us
(1) how qualified the scientists were
(2) who funded the scientists
(3) what their data actually said, and
(4) the actual scope of their theory explaining the data
So a link between longer life and cancer patients who eat chocolate might mean something, but possibly a simplistic claim that ‘chocolate cures cancer’ is a bad scientist claim or (more likely) a bad journalist claim.
What’s more - a good thing for us non-scientists to keep in mind is that studying and analysing data isn’t always simple.
We need to be aware of this when reading about theories have made about sets of data where there were infinite changing variables at play (for example, political science theories on the origins of political coups).
They may be profound and important theories, but are inherently speculative and it doesn’t always help us to think of them in the same way as we think about basic chemistry.
Essentially - I think it could be useful for us (non-scientists) to view science not as a collection of theories to accept blindly, dismissing everything that hasn’t been ‘scientifically proven’ as guaranteed bollocks (because everything that currently HAS been scientifically proven was, once, not scientifically proven.)
But also not as something to be feared, opposed to, or to shelter beliefs from. Because science doesn’t take away the magic, it explains the magic!
OK SEE YOU NEXT WEEK
Science-Housemate-Matt for explaining this to me
Yvette d'Entremont AKA SciBabe, who is an actual real scientist and a total babe and debunks bad science which is quite an important thing is this modern world
Also this TED video by Lucy McGown and Jeff Leek called ‘This one weird trick will help you spot clickbait’. But Tegan, you say, isn’t the title of THIS post a bit clickbaity? Why, yes! That’s why you should watch the video. So you can avoid clicking it next time.