Science is more than lab coats and test tubes and Einstein's bad hair day. It's a system of discovering truth based on what we can measure, thereby scaffolding our way to enlightenment. The word stems from the Latin word scientia, which means knowledge.
The past 500 years have seen humanity accelerate industry, technology, and medicine thanks to the scientific method.
Science is how we've invented computers and brain surgery and self-driving cars. All of this make our existence considerably less deathy. Just imagine your day without the inventions of science. You wouldn't get very far at all—unless of course, you currently thrive semi-naked in the wilderness. For narrative purposes I'm assuming you don't.
The Four Canons of Science
There are hundreds of branches of science today—biological engineering, materials science, galactic astronomy, anthropology, quantum mechanics, climatology, and behavioural neuroscience to name a few. Diverse as they are, these specialist fields all share the same ground rules which define their underlying process of discovery:
#1 Empiricism: Knowledge comes from direct observation.
Science is sceptical of things we can't measure—like the afterlife, mediumship, and telepathy. They might just as well be made up, so we better not go and build our worldview around them, yeah?
#2 Testability: Ideas must be falsifiable.
Scientific hypotheses must be framed in such a way that they can be verified or disproven with further study. Anyone can claim they time travel in their dreams, but without testability, we can't even begin to explore this as a possible truth. It's a scientific cul-de-sac.
#3 Parsimony: Avoid making assumptions.
When confronted with two possible explanations, scientists should first explore the explanation that makes the fewest unproven assumptions. This is also known as Ockham's Razor, for the 14th century philosopher, William of Ockham, who enjoyed a bit of theoretical problem solving. In science, the principle doesn't offer irrefutable logic for reaching a conclusion, but it is used to guide the development of emerging theoretical models.
#4 Determinism: The universe is bound by cause and effect.
The universe is a complex web of interactions, from massive centrifugal forces that compel the structure of galaxies, to quantum mechanical effects that shape neurotransmitters in your brain. These physical interactions are logical and predictable in nature, rendering notions of fate, karma, and free will moot. Why? Because they assert multiple causes for singular effects.
Perhaps because of these ground rules, non-scientists hold the misconception that science is rigid and unyielding. Yet in fact, these principles give rise to a scientific culture that's eternally responsive to change. We see this in action when scientists assimilate new evidence to expand or even overhaul established theories.
This willingness to throw out old ideas and embrace the new is how science progresses, honing in on objective truths with increasing specificity.
This fluidity of thought contrasts with religion which, by its nature, is governed by ancient dogma and so must strongly oppose change. For example, the belief that the world is 6,000 years old blocks any attempt to integrate scientific knowledge of geology and evolution.
This is an important distinction to make. The modern world develops not by hanging on to outmoded convictions, but by embracing new evidence and its applications. So start building up your own personal cache of scientific enlightenment. Go ahead and wrangle with science, pull it apart, try to prove it wrong.
See? You're already sciencing.
"Science is different to all the other systems of thought. You don't need faith in it, you can check that it works." - Brian Cox, author of Why Does E=MC2?
Why Fox Pokes Cats
My son, Fox, loves animals. He went through a phase of poking and pestering cats to see their reactions. Psychologists call this bottom-up processing. In other words, you can't make any assumptions about cats—only bootstrap your way up to new conclusions.
Eventually a cat scratched Fox and ran away. That day, he learned that cats have sharp and rather effective claws.
Now when Fox meets a cat, he doesn't have to go through the whole experimental rigmarole of poking it senseless to see what will happen. Now he's top-down processing. In other words, you start with an established conclusion.
Children adopt this scientific framework naturally because it's simple and intuitive. It's very effective, too. They learn about the world through direct observation and build up a catalogue of conclusions.
The problem is, after a while, we get cocky. We begin to think we know everything already. We cut corners and start to top-down everything.
By the time they're adults, many people stop asking "why". They fail to gather data in the light of new situations, forgetting their open-minded schema of childhood which would have led them to empirical truth.
Science solves this problem by being course-correcting. As it's core, scientific training teaches us to go back to basics and build truth from the ground up.
So if you haven't already, put on your science filter and start making evidence-based conclusions. Use an empirical lens to navigate the media minefield of pseudo-science and ideological indoctrination.
With scientific thinking, we can make more effective decisions about education, medicine, climate change, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and any indeed many aspects of modern life.
Cast off your top-down assumptions, adopt a questioning approach, and play in ways you haven't done since you were five years old and poking cats.
"Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge." - Carl Sagan, author of Cosmos
Science Fact and Science Fiction
Many scientists love science fiction because it's a natural extension of the thing they do best: asking questions. How much can we genetically modify our bodies? What would it be like to colonise another planet? Will we ever look (or even step) through time? If these questions have you frothing at the mouth, you're a scientist too.
I think I caught the bug when I read Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park when I was 13. The movie's a classic, yes, but the book is something else. There's so much more science in the book. Read it if you haven't. And the sequel. It's got genetics, chaos theory, ethics, gore, and belligerent monsters who look like (but technically aren't) dinosaurs.
The "what if" questions posed by science fiction grow in significance every year. We live in a time when technology is accelerating at an eye-watering pace and things once considered wildly futuristic are now actually happening. As I write, long-distance quantum teleportation is in the science press, using entangled photons to create a quantum internet.
This is what I'm all about. I cover science fact right here on Science Me, while drafting a science fiction novel which may or may not ever see the light of day. Everything I do is a work in progress, just like humanity itself. A weird and chaotic science experiment set on a little blue dot.