17 August 2012
It’s the most imprtant thing that anyone should understand about science. It’s in nearly every science text book from grade school to high school (usually at the front but often skipped or downplayed). It made the computer you are reading this on possible and in fact it made all of modern technology possible!
No, it’s not science…It’s SCIENTIFIC METHOD.
Do you know what it is, what it means? Do you have a solid understanding of it? Most do not, but it is the single greatest invention made by man. It’s so important that the nation with the greatest number of people who DO undersand it, will always rise to be the leader of the world. ALWAYS.
If you have some vague recollection that I am talking about hypothesis testing, then you’re missing the boat here. It’s MUCH deeper than that, because when you understand scientific method, you will understand completely what Neil de Grasse Tyson is really saying.
SCIENTIFIC METHOD IS:
At it’s core, it’s a simple set of rules that allows us to separate myth and superstition from reality, and allows us to build knowledge on a foundation of tried and tested fact. In short, scientific knowledge is the sum total of what we can see and test in the universe around us.
Rule One. Any observation or experiment we make must be repeatable. Others must be able to make the same observation or experiment, and get the SAME results. Not just someone you choose, but anyone and everyone should get the same result or make the same observation.
Violate rule one and it is NOT science.
Rule Two. Theories must make verifiable predictions. Any idea on how things work, or what is (or is not) true must be testable and falsifiable. You must be able to do an experiment that COULD possibly prove the idea wrong.
If you cannot do an experiment that could test the idea, and possibly prove it WRONG, then it is NOT Science.
If an experiment shows a theory is wrong, then it’s wrong. As Richard Feynman said (I paraphrase) “It does not matter how smart your are or how famous you are, if your theory does not fit with experiment, then it’s wrong!” (..and therefore it is NOT science).
Don’t just take my word for it:
What is so fantastic about this method of discovering new things, is that it immediately excludes myth, superstition, and everything that does not work. Your relatives may argue at every holiday gathering whether or not trickle down economics works, but in science if your theory fails experimentally then it’s wrong. Subject closed. (I’ll leave to others the subject of whether or not economics is a science!)
The knowledge and theories that have been tested, and shown to be reliable countless times, are what makes up the science books in schools. After so much knowledge on a subject has been gained, to prove the foundation of a theory wrong becomes an almost insurmountable task. One would have to show that all those experiments that came before were wrong. One simple observation or experiment could do it, but the only ones who expect it to happen are those who for one reason or another cannot accept the foundation in the first place.
I gave a talk about weather and climate change to a group a few years ago and someone came up afterwards and pointedly said “I have a theory and you cannot prove it wrong!” I replied, “you just did”. This is why “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe it”.
It took me several paragraphs to explain this, while Neil de Grasse Tyson did it in one sentence. That’s why I forecast the weather on TV, and he runs the Hayden Planetarium!