The scientific method defined (well hypothesised at any rate)

I recently realised that the jury is out on exactly what science and the scientific method are (or should be, at least).

Some would say that science is the endeavour to understand the world, answer the “how” behind the ocean tides, rainbows or seed germination. So the scientific method is any way we might do this. Sounds reasonable to me.

However, some would say that science is the business of ‘facts’ or ‘truth’ and proofs. We do experiments to ‘prove’ our hypothesis. This is the definition I would like to take issue with.

Theories and facts confused…

I get really agitated when I hear people say that evolution is a ‘fact’. Not because I’m a  nutty young earth creationist (I’m not), because no-one has yet furnished a proof. But, you may argue, there’s loads of evidence, its clearly a fact.

But evidence is not the same as proof.

Even if something is 99.999% sure, it is still not sure.

I think the trouble comes because people are never taught that those ‘theorems’ and ‘proofs’ they learned in maths class are not quite the same as the theories and evidence in the scientific method.

So is maths a science? Well, yes, sort of. But while it can deal with real things, like counting sheep, it actually deals with a sort of imaginary world (the so-called Platonic ‘world of ideas’). The whole of maths is a mental construct with no known (‘proven’) basis is reality. But nonsense, you say, of course there are numbers in the real world! Well so there are, but there are no proofs!

Proofs are only possible is a fully ‘understood’ world, and because the world of maths is underpinned by a set of axioms, it is, more or less, ‘understood’. But the real world in which we live is not like that. We don’t understand how the brain works, we don’t know how many dimensions there are, we don’t even know if there is a god.

So does that mean we don’t know anything? The media (and opponents of science) use this uncertainty to undermine science. “You can’t prove there is no God, because there is!” Hey presto, a proof of God.

No, science and the scientific method doesn’t do proofs and facts. So what does it do?

Let’s consider the old chestnut, evolution. People had a book that explained the marvellous spectrum of life, from the caterpillar to the jellyfish. This was good enough for many years. But some clever folks started to question why God would bother to make different tortoises on different islands, and why He would go to all the trouble of putting dinosaur bones in certain rocks and why he would disguise their uranium-lead isotopes to make them look millions of years old.

So a theory was proposed (Darwin’s natural selection) that explained the incredible story of species and, for good measure, predicted that humans are apes, which went down well in the church.

Since then, loads and loads of observations have been made that confirm the theory (with the odd tweak). Its a theory that would have been easy to disprove. If it was wrong, some animals that couldn’t have logically been explained by the theory would have cropped up. But they haven’t.

But all this evidence is not proof. And the lack of a disproof isn’t a proof.

The same is true for all accepted theories. The sun and the moon are thought to cause the tides. If that a fact?

If you ask a scientist, even a good one, he/she may well say yes, its a fact. Because it is so darn likely to be right. Because there is no good alternative theory. Because non-one is disputing it. Because the maths is just so neat. Because the theory can make predictions. All good reasons to accept a theory. But they do not make it fact.

So we do know ‘stuff’, plenty of stuff, facts to all intents and purposes, but not strictly facts in the sense of logical proof.

So what is the scientific method, then?

Science is the system of theories and hypotheses about the nature of reality that have not yet been disproven and which are ranked by the weight of evidence in their favour.

It is like a model of the world that we are ever refining, chucking out wrong theories, refining the ones that work. The scientific method is that refinement process. Well that is my hypothesis. The truth may be altogether different!