For All Who Claim to “Believe In” Science

Science is real and you’re looking at it wrong

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Science is always changing.

Nobel prize-winning biologist Peter Medawar wrote: “Science is not a collection of facts or of unquestionable generalizations, but a logically connected network of hypotheses that represent our current opinion about what the real world is like.”

Maybe I’m being pedantic, but the wording on those yard signs that announce “Science is real”— often seen in lovely, upscale liberal neighborhoods — eats at me.

A contradiction in terms

What does “real” really mean? You can’t “believe” in science without a healthy respect for its process.

Why is it these days that you often hear a person say the word “science” in the same breath as wanting to cancel someone? Somethings’s fowl.

Here’s the thing. Science doesn’t need you to believe anything. You don't need to concede that “what the real world is like” is real. It is, and was, and will be. Dinosaurs are real. The speed of light is real. Nuclear fusion is real. The theory of evolution is real. Acknowledging the existence of anything is some kind of argument? Great. Princess Leia is real. Skepticism is real.

You only need to acknowledge that science is an honest search for answers. And scientists, if they’re honest, welcome questions.

If you really believe, then you engage in the process, even when it’s uncomfortable and taxes your patience.

Recall the first day of science class in every year of school. No matter whether it was biology or physics or chemistry class, in the first week of school your teacher had you write in your brand new lab notebook, the definition of the scientific process.

Then she lectured about research, hypothesis, conducting an experiment, observation and data collection, analysis, communicating results, etc. She may have even waded into the territory of cognitive bias, which can skew the process from the very start.

The rest of the year, you learned information that scientists throughout history have agreed upon based on honest critique.

These days science is consensus more than anything else, it seems. And that consensus should never be offered with too much enthusiasm.

Here’s how science works

Eventually, people who study certain things that occur in the natural, physical world agree that, yes, some set of data seems to prove the verity of a theory, and it stands. Or it doesn’t. And they start again.

Science is really a series of experiments with control groups and test groups, — in the case of medical experiments, a double-blind study — an exhaustive collection of data, thoughtful analysis, and then (usually) publication in a peer-reviewed journal of some sort. That way, everyone who knows something about the subject can read all about it. From these publications, other scientists build on the results by inventing experiments of their own. And on and on it goes.

If you’re educated, you know this already. So why do you need to “believe” anything? Do you believe in science because someone told you it was true? Or do you believe it because some theory hasn’t been disproven yet?

If it’s the former, then what you might be trying to say is that you believe scientists. Either that or you’ve elevated science itself to a fundamental religion. You’ve admitted that you‘re not educated or inquisitive enough to explore the matter. You simply have blind faith that certain ideas about the natural world are true.

Open your mind to the unknown, and question what you’re presented with these days. Otherwise, be honest, and simply admit that you’re not a scientist; you’re a believer, and call your belief what it really is… religion.

Fair enough. We all accept certain concepts as true. No one is an expert in everything. But if you really wanted to, you could seek to understand.

If it’s the latter, then you might actually be a scientist. But then you probably wouldn’t use the word “believe.”

What is a hypothesis?

The actual definition, according to Websters, is “a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation.”

It’s a well-researched jumping-off point.

A scientist ponders a problem. “Here’s what I think is true based on what I know already,” she says. And then she sets up an experiment that will certainly foil her hypothesis if everything proceeds correctly. She searches for the hole in the bucket. She is actually looking for evidence that she’s wrong!

That's science, folks.

Scientists, if they’re honest, welcome questions.

A scientist goes for No

Science is an ever-fluctuating tide of opinion about the truth of the world. There are things humans can’t change. All we can do is try to understand. Some may think science is simple and clean and a refuge for those who can’t stand dealing with the messy world of people. We picture the lone scientist working late into the night in her laboratory. Facts are facts, right?

But scientists are people. And people are motivated by power and fame and money and prestige. The field of science is full of real people. Therefore the scientific process aims to neutralize all that “people-ness.”

Honest inquiry is welcome in science — as in sales, and art, and philosophy, etc. Theoretically.

No matter how much money, credibility, or time they’ve invested or stand to gain, a single scientist doesn’t get to single-handedly state the “facts.” Science is about searching for answers with fierce determination.

When you tell people they can’t ask questions, you abort the whole idea of science.

Science and Money

The more you stand to gain from a confirmed hypothesis should make you the most humble servant to an honest collection of data. If you’re going to make a lot of money from a product, and then disparage certain people who ask questions about it, that’s alarming.

I’m alarmed a lot these days. A long time ago, a man named Galileo Galilei posited that the earth was not flat. In fact, he had pretty good evidence that the earth revolved around the sun. For this theory, he spent the remainder of his day under house arrest. The Catholic church didn’t like this idea, for whatever reason.

Maybe Galileo’s theory altered the church’s fiscal outlook.

What would be really cool, would be to have a blind, universal search for answers, funded by no one, and the money never runs out. Would that keep scientists on the hook for their theories or remove all accountability? We’ll never know. Today accountability can be bought. History repeats itself.

These days I really don’t have a strong sense that prominent, popular scientists and corporations are truly searching for answers. This worries me, but I refuse to be scared.

Fear is overcome by forced acts of courage. And I’ve heard courage defined as the love affair of the unknown. If asking questions is an offense, then answering questions in such a culture is a laughable indulgence. There’d be no need.

And that’s not what I understand science to be.

Conspiracies are rampant these days. No one knows fake news from real news. I’m beginning to think you can only really believe what you see and hear for yourself — and even then, you might be wrong. Even as I write this, I may be adding my name to a list somewhere. Who knows?

Are we all scientists?

In some ways we are. We make thousands of daily decisions based on previous experiments we’ve set up and tested. Most of us try to do better by making tiny tweaks, or at least we acknowledge that we’re stepping over the same failed experiment we tried last week or last year or yesterday. If we’re honest.

All I ask is that we invite an open dialogue about scientific claims. Open discussion is the only way to get to a consensus. It’s the only way to progress.

The loudest voices these days create a great dichotomy. Either they’re breathlessly sharing the latest science news, or they’re brutes from the dark ages — science skeptics.

People who try to understand science sincerely want to have access to experiments that scientists have performed and reviewed. We want to understand how the real world works.

Now, about those semantics

According to Karen Armstrong, in her 2008 TED talk which inspired the Charter for Compassion:

Belief — which we make such a fuss about today — is only a very recent religious enthusiasm that surfaced only in the West, in about the 17th century. The word “belief” itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear. In the 17th century, it narrowed its focus… to mean an intellectual assent to a set of propositions, a credo. “I believe:” it did not mean, “I accept certain creedal articles of faith.” It meant: “I commit myself. I engage myself.”

Take note, dear reader. I’m just a silly English major who studied 19th British literature in college in the 80s. Somehow I found my way to copywriting, marketing, and massage therapy, the main endeavors through which I pay my bills. But I have a healthy respect for science.

“I engage myself.”

A long time ago I became interested in science. Not actually doing experiments, etc. That’s way too rigorous and tedious for my scattered, average little brain. But I’ve always loved reading about science.

My grandpa had an astronomy book that blew my 11-year-old mind, and I geek out on biochemistry, neuroscience, human physiology, and everything NASA deems worthy to release to the generally simple-minded public. (That’s me.)

I want people who claim to believe that “science is real” to understand that it’s a search, not a collection of facts. If you really believe, then you engage in the process, even when it’s uncomfortable, and taxes your patience.

Open your mind to the unknown, and question what you’re presented with these days. Otherwise, be honest, and simply admit that you’re not a scientist; you’re a believer, and call your belief what it really is… religion.

The scientific process is real

A real scientist is looking for answers as we speak, regardless of your yard sign situated next to the bougainvillea climbing up the front porch.

A scientist welcomes questions, even those she hasn’t thought to ask herself.

There’s no need to pronounce that science is real as if your claim gives the world permission to behave in a certain way, or allows scientists access to the scientific process.

Science is for everyone.

Written by

Curious mom, writer, & lymphatic massage therapist. I teach a persuasive writing course, too. Start here: https://www.jenmcgahan.com/power-words

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store