I frequently see people believe that something is “a science” just because scientists have engaged in the scientific method to perform a study on that subject. That’s not true, though, and I think it involves a confusion between “science” and “the scientific method.”
Science is essentially the philosophy that the most important statements are ones that accurately predict the future.
“What, wait,” you say, “I thought science was about doing experiments and wearing lab coats, or something.” No. Science is in fact a philosophy that was developed at various different times on this planet depending on what part of the world you’re in. The core of this philosophy is the thing that I wrote above. But what does that really mean?
Think about it this way: you have some purpose that you would like to accomplish. Let’s say it’s something as simple as, “I would like to throw this basketball into that net.” In present time, all you have are your perceptions of the environment around you. The ball hitting the net happens in the future. With only your perceptions of the present, how could you possibly know what will happen when you throw the ball? You couldn’t. It would be very hard to get the basketball into the net. But what if you could predict that when you throw the ball upwards, it will come down? That’s a statement about the future. And that’s the actual value of the law of gravity—it allows you to predict what will happen before you take an action, and it’s true 100% of the time (at least, in the context where you need the data, like a basketball court on Earth).
We call statements like this “predictive statements.” If they are universally true (or near enough) then we call them “laws.” Discovering, proving, and using these laws is actually the purpose and basis of science. If a field is called a “science” and it doesn’t have laws, it’s not a science. Just because somebody has done “a study” doesn’t make something a science. And that’s important because those laws or predictive statements are the whole value of science. A set of rules that don’t help you accurately predict the future are useless, other than being interesting trivia that you can think about and have fun talking about.
The hard part of existing in the current civilization is that most of what the data we are being fed is not a science. The vast, vast majority of data we are given does not help us reliably predict the future.
Not all data has to be at the level of a law to be valuable. There are lots of facts about work, family, life, bodies, etc. that are immediately useful without predicting something broad about the universe. But the useful data all predict something about the future, correctly. For example, knowing grammar is valuable, because it helps me predict that you will probably understand my sentences. Knowing how to drive a car is valuable, because it allows me to predict what will happen when I press the gas pedal or steer the wheel. And it allows me to predict things like, “I will be able to drive to the store today.”
The world is full of useless data. Like, most of what you hear about psychology is not a science, but it gets quoted everywhere as though it is. I’m sorry if I’ve stepped on something sacred to you by saying that, but it’s a fact. The field in general doesn’t have laws. It doesn’t have a set of actions you can take to reproduce something 100% of the time, so you get a lot of non-predictive statements out of it. The trouble is that a lot of media then state these claims as though they are predictive statements. You hear things like, “if you take a group of people and you do X to them, then Y happens.” But when you try to apply it in the real world, Y does not happen, or something weird and unpredictable happens. I’m happy that people want to understand the human mind—that’s super important and we should encourage true scientific investigation into that. But I don’t support making non-scientific statements and claiming that they accurately predict the future.
This isn’t limited to just one, field, though. It’s in almost every field. Health has it especially—diet, exercise, body function, illness—all of these are full of false data that is designed to help make the author money, fame, or power, but not designed to help you navigate the subject and arrive at a happier future. Education, art, business, interpersonal relationships, politics, economics—you name a subject, and most of the popular data on the subject is actually false and will not accurately predict the future.
The funny part about all of this is—it’s so easy to test this. Science only requires one counter-example to prove something false. Try to apply something and see if it actually works. Don’t just take it on faith. Look around in your environment or experience and see if there are any counter-examples. I mean, you do have to think clearly on this—sometimes you believe there is a counter-example, but you actually don’t have all the context on something, so you make a mistake. It’s best to use things you’ve directly perceived, but some second-hand data is reliable. That’s probably the hardest part of navigating this, is figuring out when you have a true counter-example. But most people don’t even look to see if something actually works in the first place. Just start with that!
The Scientific Method
This is a method of evolving truth. There are lots of ways of thinking about this process, but the key steps of it are:
- Form a hypothesis
- Reproduce the results
And out of this comes some conclusion, ideally a predictive statement, but also sometimes “that didn’t work and we don’t know yet,” which is also fine.
Many people, when applying this method, forget the observation step comes before making a hypothesis. The point is that you’re gathering data and then you form a hypothesis from that data.
After that, crafting experiments is then a whole art and science in itself, which I won’t go into here, but they need to be able to produce useful and true information.
Then you need to be able to demonstrate that others can reproduce your findings. This is also frequently overlooked, even by people who are supposed to be professionals in their field. (See The Reproducibility Project for an example of what I’m talking about.)
However, just because you have gone through this process doesn’t mean you have produced a science, or that the field you are working in is a science. True sciences have laws, predictive statements that are true 100% of the time. People can do lots of work using the scientific method and produce no laws.
Often, a study produces only minor predictive statements—ones that are only true in a very limited context. I doubt anybody wants a science of “how to make these three specific mice get through this specific maze under these specific conditions,” for example, and sometimes that’s the only predictive statement you can actually derive from a study. Unfortunately, many scientists exaggerate the predictive power of their conclusions—or at least, popular media takes the conclusions in papers and blows them out of proportion, so people believe that there is a science in a field when there is, in fact, not one.
Methods of Gaining Knowledge
One thing that’s worth knowing is that the scientific method is not the only method of gaining knowledge, although it has been a very successful one.
The scientific method is a form of induction, which means “making a statement and then proving that it is true.” Basically, you start with data and observations, you form a hypothesis, and then you (hopefully) end up with a predictive statement. There are other forms of induction besides the scientific method (literally any way you start with a hypothetical statement and then prove that statement) but the scientific method is the most common, probably because it’s been very effective at producing predictive statements.
Even more simply, one can start with data and then come to a conclusion. People do this all the time. There are better or worse ways to do it, but it is one method of gaining knowledge.
The danger of induction is that you will either (a) draw the wrong conclusion from the data or (b) draw too broad of a conclusion (one that the data doesn’t actually justify). When looking at conclusions that come from induction, it helps to understand what the actual data was. That can let you know if the conclusion is over-broad or simply wrong. (Remember, you only need one counter-example to disprove it.)
The opposite of induction is deduction, where you have a law or predictive statement, and then you make logical conclusions about what will happen. That’s like, “I have this basketball, if I throw it up in the air it will fall.” You don’t have to throw the basketball to find that out—you already know it because you know gravity is a law.
Deduction is what people are doing when they use science in their lives. It’s also a totally valid way of coming up with new information (people usually call this “logic”), as long as you recognize that you can make mistakes if you don’t do it right.
In addition to these two, there are other methods of gaining knowledge.
Throughout history, people have engaged in mysticism, which means “direct communication with the divine.” Has this produced true or useful knowledge? Billions of people seem to think it has, and there are a lot of positive examples of it helping people in their lives. It is, perhaps, not a reliable method, since not everybody is able to produce useful information this way, all the time. But it does seem that useful information has been produced this way, at least sometimes in history. Many scientists scoff at this method, but I think it’s important to recognize all the valid ways of gaining knowledge, while also recognizing their limitations.
The most popular method of gaining knowledge is through emotions—a person “feels” something is true or false. This works a surprising amount of the time, especially when it’s something about the person themselves. They feel that if they do something, it will turn out well. Then they do it, and they were correct! They didn’t go through a reasoning process, they just felt an emotion. They even talk about “needing to learn to trust themselves,” which often means believing their own emotions (or their own perceptions). However, this is not a foolproof method of gaining knowledge. There are many things where what a person “feels” about them doesn’t actually determine whether they are true or false.
There are probably many more methods of gaining knowledge, but I don’t think I can list them all here. The point is just to understand that:
- The scientific method is a useful method for gaining knowledge, as long as you understand what knowledge you are actually gaining from it.
- Just because you have engaged in the scientific method doesn’t mean you have produced a science.
- There are other methods of gaining knowledge—you don’t have to use only the scientific method for every question you have.
I hope that this helps you navigate the complex landscape of life and the data in it.