Let’s play a little word association game. When I say scientist, what sort of thoughts and images cross your mind?
Maybe you thought of a person with glasses in a lab coat surrounded by microscopes and beakers (a perfect image of one of my personal favorite scientists Dexter Boy Genius). Or, maybe you thought of scientists out in remote places pulling ice cores out of glaciers, or at a mountain-top observatory studying the stars. A common theme running through these different visions of scientist is that they are all somewhat inaccessible, either hidden in a laboratory, or far away in the field or on a ship doing their science; and you are here, in the real world, not doing science… But is that really the way it is, are scientists really so different from the rest of the world? What are these mysterious women and men doing in their labs and institutions all over the world?
To get to the bottom of that question we must first ask ourselves: what is science? What is the end goal of science, and (an increasingly asked question) can I trust it?
If we think back to the stereotypical pictures of scientists we just came up with, one common factor between them is curiosity. Scientists are driven by curiosity because they want to know why things happen the way they do. Sometimes a scientist gets so fixated on a particular question that they devote their entire lives to finding a solution. As a community, scientists are working together to figure out the way things work, or, as my friend and fellow ecologist Joe put it: “as scientists we seek to increase our [humanity’s] ability to perceive the world.” In the end, this is the mission of science, to explain, as best as we can, the world around us. So, how do scientists go about finding answers to their questions, and how do they know when they are right?
First, science is inquiry. According to Webster, inquiry is an examination of facts, a request for information, or a systematic investigation. Unlike philosophy or theology, science deals with the physical universe, and in order to find answers to their questions scientists examine, test, and analyze their observations through inquiry – a systematic investigation.
Second, science is an iterative process, it progresses through incremental changes. Apple is never satisfied with the iPhone, they can always find something that might not work as well as it could, always something to improve: the camera, design, sound. So, Apple’s engineers are constantly working and reworking, tweaking things to improve the iPhone. The end result is seen every year or so when they unveil their latest iPhone iteration – a slight improvement on the preexisting model. By looking closely at what did or didn’t work and making many small changes Apple hopes to create the best iPhone possible.
Science works through the same process. A naturally skeptical bunch, scientists are never satisfied with the status quo. So, scientists push the limits, they test and re-test old theories to reinforce old ideas or to formulate new ones all in an effort to improve our understanding of the world.
But, how do we know when science is right, and can I trust it? This inherent skepticism is exactly what make science so trustworthy. Science is never finished; it is never content with the answers it has. As soon as one question is answered a dozen more are unveiled. Likewise, scientists never blindly trust in new discoveries, they critically evaluate any new research to ensure validity. For example, if a climate scientist says that her newly formulated climate models will predict an increase in big winter storms in the Northeastern US, the scientific community isn’t just going to take my word for it, they will scrutinize the data to either confirm or deny her results. This, my friends, is the process of peer review.
So, science is never satisfied, never finished because of its curiosity and skepticism, and is trustworthy because of this very skepticism. This means that when you hear on the news about a new scientific discovery that has “disproven” an old theory that we knew was true, this isn’t a failure of science, it is a triumph! Chipping away at what we thought we knew to get a better picture of reality is science in action.
Now we can finally get back to our original question: What is it that all these scientists are doing, and why are they doing it?
Scientists are people (just like you and me) who work to improve our understanding of how the world works through the process inquiry. More simply put, however, scientists are just curious people who ask questions and look for answers. Might not sound so different from you, does it? Any time you wonder, what might happen if… and then try it to find out, you are a scientist! We really aren’t so different after all. Because in the end, scientists are just driven by a passion for what they study. Or, as my friend Michael put it, “I just really love fish and stuff!”