Today, I’m happy to share with you a guest article we asked Sara Djurich to contribute. Sara is a PhD candidate in Physiological Sciences at the University of Arizona. She graduated from Brigham Young University Provo with a BS in Neuroscience. She enjoys reading, writing, and music. You can contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Science is not definite.
Science is not truth.
Science is not fact.
Science is limited.
Science is interpretive.
Science is a process.
How many times has a headline read ‘The Cure to a Disease Has Been Found’? How many ads appear on websites, screaming that science discovered the secret to eternal youth? How many times do people utter, “It’s been scientifically proven”? How many times in an argument do participants appeal to the laws of science, and that ends the debate?
Too many times.
A disconnect with a large fan base exists between the understanding of what science can and cannot define. Using ‘scientific fact’ cheaply suggests ‘that’s that.’ No going around it. Everything since the beginning of creation supports this particular point of view because scientists determined that this one thing is true. Science is much messier than the ‘truth’ or ‘proof’ that many people think science is. Whenever invoking science to support an argument, an awareness of the scientific process and its limits is necessary; otherwise, science becomes meaningless.
A great play by Reginald Rose called Twelve Angry Jurors illustrates how scientific theory works. The whole play takes place in a single room over the course of a few hours. Before giving the jury time to deliberate, the judge tasks the jury with giving a verdict on whether or not a young man stabbed his father to death, noting that a guilty verdict leads to the death sentence; if the jury finds reasonable doubt, the youth’s life is spared. At the beginning of the play, almost the entire jury believes the youth guilty; one juror puts on the brakes because he wants to sift through the evidence. As Juror 8 argues effectively, many of the jurors begin to think that reasonable doubt exists, and their votes change to not guilty. Only one person holds out eventually. The reason this juror continues to vote guilty is because of a bad relationship with his son—not because of logical arguments.
Science works similarly: a scientist presents a theory backed up by evidence. The scientific community deliberates on the evidence. Over a course of time—sometimes years—a theory develops as more studies present evidence that could either destroy or support the original theory. Studies and consensus birth scientific theories. Sometimes, however, scientists consider a theory ‘rubbish’ not because the theory contradicts studies—but because the theory contradicts their feelings. What scientists decide as ‘dogma’ is what the rest of the world hears without a the background of why that decision was made.
The general populace does not realize the debates different theories can engender because they receive scientific news secondhand. Or even thirdhand. Many people hear of new discoveries via the news. By the time of the announcement of the discovery, each journalist will have interpreted the results to the best of their varying abilities, which could mean a slightly different interpretation.
For example, imagine friends visiting the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. A non-art critic friend would probably describe the picture as “a picture of a woman with dark hair, dressed in dark clothes, and smiling, with a pretty lake and trees in the background.” However, an art critic would discuss the medium, the color palette, the display case with temperature and humidity regulation, and many of the controversies surrounding Mona Lisa—like who the original subject was. Even though a non-art critic friend could describe the Mona Lisa accurately, richness and depth are missing. Similarly, though a journalist can give their interpretation of scientific results, accurately judging that journalist’s ability to understand and disseminate those findings is not easy without a return to the original source material—the study—which many lack the knowledge to interpret.
The lack of understanding scientific process and receiving scientific process are not the only barriers to using science properly. In addition to these two items, understanding limitations of measurement and experimental design, how statistics function, and how human personalities play into what the public hears about discoveries affect the perception of science. As appreciation of constraints of science increases, society may understand that science is not the ‘end all be all’ that we currently portray it as. Science is good—but science cannot define everything.
What are some ways to combat the current of science ‘fact’? One easy way is to include the histories of scientific ‘facts’: the many conflicting thoughts that were contested until a single, coherent theory evolved—and then include a discussion of how theories are still subject to change and review. In classes, or in discussion with friends, mentioning some of the ongoing controversies and their strengths and weakness would also illustrate the fluidity of science.
Science is a process. Learning to speak with non-scientists about science as a process instead of as facts would change the perception of science.