5.What is Science?: Method
Now that you are thoroughly bored, confused, and/or intrigued by all of the last four days of background, what is science? It is a method for describing the natural universe in an ordered manner. This is done via a process called the Scientific Method. The steps are Observation, Question, Hypothesize, Test, Analyze, Modify Hypothesis, and Repeat.
Most humans rarely ask questions purely out of the blue. Typically, we see an object or a phenomenon then ask, “What is it?” or “What happened?” Those are the first two steps, and are very natural behaviour for us. Hang around a three-year-old child and you’ll see what I mean.
When we ask the question, we then try to answer it based on our understanding of the world. “How is what I just saw similar to what I already know?” “How is it different?” By answering these questions, we try to categorize the object or event. This categorization leads us to make an ‘educated’ guess or hypothesis as to what we saw.
Next we try to study the situation and see how good the hypothesis is. “Is it alive?” We poke it with a stick to see if it responds. This is an experiment to test our hypothesis.
Based on what happens (Did we just get bitten for poking it?), we refine our hypothesis by either asking new questions or modifying the old question. If nothing happened, then we might modify the original question to, “Was it alive at one point?” If it bit us, then a new question would likely be, “Is it poisonous?”
Now we enter the scientific cycle of testing the new hypothesis, and so on. That is really all there is to science. We now know what it is and how to do it, and we see that it is a very human thing to do. Scientists have just formalized the process and named it after themselves, but at its heart, it is pretty simple.
Let’s face it, coming up with a hypothesis is fun. We see something we don’t understand, and we want to figure out the puzzle. There is a certain amount of justifiable pride in solving a mystery; hence, the popularity of the detective/mystery genre. On the surface, this is harmless. In science, there is a danger here of which we as scientists must be aware. Since we humans like to be “right,” it can be tempting to even subconsciously design our experimentation to see if our hypothesis is right rather than to see what the answer to the question is. Remember, science is meant by definition to impersonally and impartially determine the character of the natural universe. Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter who figured what out, just that it is understood.
Unfortunately, humans do science. Unfortunately, most scientists are not independently wealthy. Unfortunately, folks who do pay for science tend to want results more than they want to understand reality. Therefore, there is more than a passing interest on the part of scientists to demonstrate that they have a better handle on understanding nature and how to use it to produce results that other scientists, so that they get more funding to do their research. It isn’t a matter of good or evil as much as it is a fact of human nature. Not that it would be any better if there was infinite funding. Then everyone who had some harebrained idea could get money to create the ultimate flying penguin or some such.