You Don’t Know Shit About Science

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Marie Curie, badass scientist you don't know shit about
Marie Curie, badass scientist who you don’t know shit about. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Okay, so that’s an exaggeration. You probably know something about science. Right? Maybe you know a lot. Maybe you know more than I do. It really wouldn’t be that hard.

But do you really understand the basics? Do you know what science is, how it works, WHY it works? Because, when I look around… when I hear people out in public, or see stuff online, or hear the shit coming out of the mouths of our politicians, it becomes clear to me that America, as a nation, just doesn’t know shit about science.

That’s not even anyone’s fault, really. We just undervalue science in general in America, and we really neglect science education. You did what you were supposed to. You took your two semesters of biology or whatever was required for you to graduate high school. Maybe you had a good teacher who understood the material and gave a damn, but maybe you didn’t. Maybe you had an English teacher who was teaching the physics class because the school district was broke and understaffed and they convinced some poor guy straight out of college to do it even though they were learning the material a week before you did.

Or, I don’t know, maybe you had Stephen fucking Hawking for your high school physics teacher. How should I know? I have no idea who you are! How did you even get in here? Wait… what are you DOING? Put that down! That is for external use only!

Ye Olde Chemistre Bottles
photo by Cyrille Largillier, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

You don’t know me!

Well, look. I don’t know anything about you, and I don’t know much about anything else. But what I DO know is, we live in a country and in a time where we have daily national conversations, online, in the media, and in the freaking federal government, about what science even is and what it’s good for. About whether we need it. About whether it even works. That’s CRAY CRAY (that means crazy, you boomers). Science is the bedrock of our modern civilization. I’m writing this article on a science box, you’re reading it on a different science box, and the words are getting between those two boxes via science waves. I’m only ALIVE at my age because of science, and there’s a decent chance that you are, too.

So, how the hell did we decide that suddenly science is something you can take or leave as you like, something that’s optional, something that is political even? It’s nuts, and we need to do better. So, while I’ve got your attention, and before your phone alerts you to a new tweet from Selena Gomez, I want to jam some information into your brain-hole. The hole where your brain sits. That’s called your skull. See, already you’ve learned something!

What IS science, yo?

Let me start with something that science is NOT. Science is not something you can believe in. It is not something you can not believe in. Belief don’t enter in to it, folks. When I hear people ask, “Do you believe in…” climate change or evolution or fucking wearing face masks during a fucking pandemic, it drives me up the wall. All the way up, I mean, it’s a long way down from here! Holy shit, how do I get down off this wall?

Science isn’t about belief, because science is based on evidence, it’s based on observations about the universe. It doesn’t rely on feelings or guesses or opinions. To conduct science is to observe, question, measure, analyze, and what you get is just how it is, whether you like it or not.

Anti-Evolution group during the Scopes Monkey Trial
photo by Mike Licht, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of belief, science also doesn’t have anything to do with religion. Now, calm down. I’m not here to bash religion, and despite what you may have heard, science doesn’t oppose religion. It just doesn’t care about it one way or the other. Not any religion, of any flavor. Why? Because the nature of religion itself defies the concepts of proof or evidence. If you had proof, you wouldn’t need faith, amirite? Religion and the supernatural, by definition, aren’t bound by known natural laws. Since we have no idea of how a deity, or a ghost, or a fucking leprechaun works, we can’t test for their presence or absence. We can’t measure god, because we can’t define what that means. How do you design an experiment to measure something that can violate the laws of physics? Tell me what a deity is made of and how to objectively measure it, and then we can talk. But, until then, science has nothing to say about religion. If you could measure the supernatural, it wouldn’t be supernatural. It would just be another natural phenomenon that you could observe, measure and predict. Religion would become a branch of science. But, it’s not.

For all intents and purposes, science doesn’t even see religion. There’s really no conflict between the two because one of them doesn’t even know about the other. It’s like when you had that crush on the popular kid in the 8th grade, but you never got the nerve to even speak to them, and they always ignored you. It’s not that they hated you. They just didn’t even know who you were. So if you really want to believe in, say, guardian angels, that’s cool. You can do that, and science don’t give two shits. That being said, I wouldn’t recommend going about your daily life, acting as though you had a guardian angel. When you get in a car, I still suggest you buckle your seat belt, no matter how much faith you have that an angel will protect you. It’s not that I can prove that the angel doesn’t exist, because science has nothing to say about it either way. It’s that I can prove that seat belts save lives. You can have faith in the unknowable, and still rely on what’s provable.

Who the fuck ate my cookies?

So why trust science? The very nature of conducting science, aka the scientific method, helps to ensure that we take the human element out of it. Observe, question, experiment, measure, and what you get is what you get. Science, done correctly, is objective. Rational. Indifferent. And that’s why it’s so reliable. Humans are filled with all kinds of emotions, instincts and beliefs that may help us sometimes, but can just get in the way other times.

You know you shouldn’t eat that entire package of cookies while watching Netflix, and you may not even really want to, but damned if they all didn’t end up in your tummy anyway. We do stuff like that on the daily, and yet you want to try to understand how the universe works without somehow screwing it up? You couldn’t eat cookies right! You can’t rely on your feelings or instincts to teach you about the nature of the universe. Your instincts told you that you better eat as much fat and sugar as possible, because your instincts didn’t know when you’d ever be able to eat again, and now your health tracker says you have to get in an extra 20,000 steps today to make up for it, and that shit just ain’t happening. Science lets us avoid all that. It allows us to filter out all those human quirks and failings. It doesn’t care about our feelings, our blind spots, or our beliefs. Science allows us to get at the hard evidence. You don’t believe in science, any more than you believe in algebra. They’re both just systems for finding the correct answer. They’re not the end goal themselves.

Flow chart showing the scientific method
The scientific method can be messier and more beer-intensive than you might think.

Here’s another thing that science ain’t, and this one might seem contradictory, so bear with me. Science is not set in stone. Science is fluid and adaptable.

“Hang the fuck on,” you’re saying, out loud in the produce aisle of the grocery store, which is where you are reading this. “You just done told me all about how science ain’t something you believe in or not, how it’s all reliable and shit. So why you saying it’s always changing?”

Well, calm the fuck down. I’m getting there. Have some patience. Those avocados ain’t going nowhere. This is what I mean, and why it’s not a contradiction. The beautiful thing about science, the truly amazingly wonderfully perfectly beautiful thing about it, is that it is self-correcting. It’s possible, even inevitable, that sometimes science will give an incomplete answer, or even an incorrect answer. Sometimes that’s because of a weird statistical fluke that threw all the data off. Maybe our understanding of the subject just wasn’t as complete as we thought it was. Sometimes we just made a bad measurement or had faulty equipment. A lot of the time, it’s because science is conducted by scientists, and goddammit if scientists aren’t as complicated, emotional, flawed and generally screwed up as everyone else. They make bad assumptions, they overlook things, they have gaps in their knowledge that they aren’t even aware of, or they just get sloppy in designing their experiment. It happens. Here’s the wonderful part though:

Eventually, sooner or later, science will catch the mistake and fix it.

How? For one thing, science builds on itself. Say that someone discovers that zebras are all left handed. They write it up in a paper, get it published in the North American Journal of the African Stripy Horse, and move on with their research. Some other scientist, somewhere else, reads this paper and starts thinking, “I wonder if there’s a evolutionary reason for that? Is being left handed beneficial to zebras? Does it help them attract mates? Let’s watch zebra sex in the wild and get paid for it!” They then design their study, get grant funding, buy a pith helmet, and travel to Kenya, only to discover that ZEBRAS DON’T HAVE HANDS!

The original biologist fucked up their experiment. Furthermore, apparently the journal was lax in their review standards. BUT… the mistake couldn’t stay hidden forever. Even if our brilliant zebrologist hadn’t figured out the mistake, even if they had gone on to publish their paper about how sexual selection has resulted in all zebras of all species being left handed, the NEXT nerd to come along and try to learn more about zebra handedness would have found something suspicious in their observations. Something that didn’t add up or that contradicted the previous studies. Sooner or later, as long as people keep studying the same topic or related ones, someone will produce data that doesn’t match the previous studies. The mistake will be revealed and our imperfect knowledge will be made just a bit more perfect. And every great once in a while, that correction can even be revolutionary.

Zebras, possibly left-handed
Possible hands are obscured in this photo

And THAT, folks, is exciting shit. For reals. Nothing in science is set in stone, not really. It’s all up for grabs, if you’ve got the data to back it up. Everything from the latest headline-grabbing study about the health benefits of having sex with wine-flavored chocolate, to the fundamental laws of physics, they’re all subject to change, if you’ve got some bulletproof data that can stand up to the scrutiny it will receive. That doesn’t mean that it’s likely or easy to disprove something that seems to be well established, like the laws of thermodynamics. But if there is something wrong with those laws, sooner or later we will figure it out. And if that ever happens, it will thrill the entire scientific world. We won’t be embarrassed that science was wrong for a hundred years. We’ll love it, we’ll celebrate! It’s like the favorite team in the playoffs getting beaten by the underdog team that everyone had written off. It almost never happens, which is why it’s so cool when it does.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but scientists don’t really know anything, not really. Instead they have varying degrees of certainty, a percentage chance that something is true. It might be 99.99999% likely to be true. Something you can safely bet on. For all intents and purposes, it’s been proven true. But you can never nail down that last vestige of uncertainty, because you can never rule out some hidden secret of the universe that turns everything on its head if you found out about it. That’s the great strength of science. It might sound like a weakness… what are you saying, science doesn’t really know what’s going on? No, it’s just that science is able to adapt to new information. It doesn’t need to have always been right. Science doesn’t have an opinion one way or the other, and it doesn’t have any pride to protect.

Like a good detective in a noir novel, science goes wherever the evidence leads, even if that takes us down some sketchy alleyways. And because science constantly builds on itself and can correct itself, we’re going to become more and more sure that it was Jimmy’s wife who killed him, not his mistress. We’ll never be able to prove it so completely that she’ll confess (she’ll never confess, that dame is cold as ice), but it’ll be good enough to convince any jury in the tri-county area.

Speaking of African Stripy Horse Journals…

Here’s the final drop of delicious fact-juice that I’m going to squirt into your cranial port. Besides doing everything possible to be utterly objective, besides being self-correcting, science isn’t science unless it’s repeatable. A big part of science is… well kind of boring really. But super important. Scientists are all each other’s editors. A critical part of how science is actually done, is to try to publish the research in a peer-reviewed journal, so you can share your work with anyone who wants to see it. No secret ingredients or proprietary dongles. You have to give up all the deets. Since it’s peer-reviewed, that means that people who know as much about this shit as you do can, and will, poke at your work, take it apart, peel away the layers and look underneath at all the moist, squishy bits revealed there. And that’s BEFORE your study actually gets published. If your colleagues don’t like what they see, well, it’s back to square one. Maybe gazelles are left-handed?

Once the research has gone through the meat grinder of peer review, once it’s been refined, cleaned, and polished, it gets released out into the wide world. From there, anyone who wants to has all the tools to check your work. They know what you did and how you did it, and they can try it themselves. If they get similar results, great. Your study held up and you’re more confident in it than ever. But, if they get different results (Dave, we grew some zebras here in the lab, and we couldn’t find hands on ANY of them) then it’s time to go back to the drawing board. You figure out what went wrong, what was missed, and we’re back in the self-correcting phase again. Maybe at the end of all that, the only thing you’ve learned is that there was really nothing surprising about the topic of your study. That’s great! It doesn’t make the front page of Buzzfeed, but knowing that what everyone always assumed was true, is actually true, is still valuable work.

Some researchers base their whole career on proving the obvious, something that can be surprisingly difficult to do. So, you figured zebras probably didn’t keep their hands in their anus, but you went and had a look-see just to check. And by god, now you know for sure. It’s still good to know. For one thing, nobody will ever have to check that again. Plus, from now until the end of time, everyone will cite your work when they study zebras, instead of just asserting that they don’t have hands anywhere and hoping nobody calls them out on it.

Unfortunately, many researchers feel pressure to "publish or perish".
Original photo by Matthew Bowden, via Wikimedia Commons

Alright, folks. Sorry again for insulting you at the beginning there. I knew that you knew something about science, but it’s amazing how much we all misunderstand it sometimes. I haven’t hardly scratched the surface, of course, but those are a couple of the issues that I notice a lot of confusion about, when I’m reading shit out loud off my phone in the produce aisle. Science isn’t a bunch of mad geniuses just whipping up whatever comes to mind. It isn’t a way for people to prove their own beliefs. Science is people asking questions and then figuring out how they can learn the answer, without fucking it up with their own guesses and feelings. When our knowledge about scientific topics changes, that’s not a sign that there’s something wrong with science. That’s actually how you know it’s working. People seem to think that’s a bad thing. “Oh, those scientists are always changing their minds, you can’t trust them.”

Would you rather they never changed their minds when new evidence came to light? Look, when you’re in a Lyft and the driver swerves to avoid hitting another zebra, you don’t get mad at them because they didn’t keep going straight ahead. You’re just glad they made the correction and then got you back on course. I mean, look, maybe you knock a star off their rating for that first zebra they hit, but then again, you probably shouldn’t have been talking to them about stripy-horse anal hands while they were trying to concentrate on the road.

And that’s science.

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