Abuse of the scientific method invites false belief

by Henry Esteban

The most important hallmark of science is the notion that all scientific theories must be falsifiable, that no idea is ever subject to supreme authority or exempt from scrutiny.

It is a reminder that ideas, regardless of how flawless they seem or how incredibly precise they are able to predict, may be wrong.

It claims no absoluteness, though attempts to find an accurate explanation of natural phenomenon. Since antiquity, we’ve come a lengthy way to understand the universe using continuously developing methods of scientific inquiry.

We’ve looked 13.8 billion years into the past with the Hubble telescope, landed on the moon, modeled DNA, mapped the human genome, discovered the nature of the electron and so much more. Regardless of our triumphs, so many misconceptions about science still persist today.

In a society that depends so heavily on science and technology, it is ironic so many do not understand—or misuse—science.

Astronomy, for instance, is often confused with astrology, horoscopes are taken as a fact, the Earth is believed to be less than 10,000 years old, weather is synonymized with climate, vaccines are believed to cause autism, and GMOs are labeled toxic.

Perhaps one of the biggest misunderstandings of science is the concept of theory. It is not uncommon to hear the remark “it’s just a theory” when questioning validity of a scientific idea, but what exactly is the definition of “scientific theory?”

The keyword here is “scientific.” A “scientific theory” is neither an “educated guess” nor a mere conjecture. It does not have the same meaning as the colloquial use of the word “theory,” used in informal dialogue (e.g. speculating who took the last slice of cake out of the refrigerator or what caused the traffic accident on the freeway).

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been empirically proven to be true from observations, models, and/or independent tests. Examples such as Gravitational Theory, the Theory of Evolution, the Big Bang, Cell Theory, General Relativity, and Plate Tectonics all fit the definition.

But why care? As a participant in a global economy where science and technology serves as its foundation, understanding the scientific method and all its tenets is a priority. It serves as a platform for critical thinking and can be applied to any discipline that enables its users to distinguish pseudoscience with real science and fact from fiction.

Thus, the scientific method is such a useful and powerful tool because it allows for the systematic and progressive understanding of the world, independent personal beliefs, biases and preconceptions

Simply put, the late astronomer Carl Sagan said it best: “Science is a way to keep from fooling ourselves and each other.”

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