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Hypotheses, Theories and Facts: The Scientific Method

What is science? Perhaps it is too grandiose to call the following discussion a working definition, but I think it is fairly easy to recognise “what is science” and – perhaps even more useful – what is not. Without a doubt it is the single most powerful tool humanity has discovered to make sense of the world, and to improve our lives in every way, but what, actually, is it?

A body of knowledge, certainly. It is ridiculous to imagine every (or, indeed, any) individual trying to recapitulate centuries of scientific discovery; the great majority of it simply has to be taught, learned, and accepted. School science teachers have always been aware of this, especially those operating in places where the loony “constructivist” ideology has hijacked national education agendas.

But, in principle, if there is anything you doubt, you can repeat the experiment and rediscover the knowledge for yourself. Above all, science is a systematic way of approaching the unknown with an appropriate scepticism.

Yes, of course, at the day-to-day practitioners’ level, science is as typically messy as any other human endeavour. There are roles for speculation, a sense of what is so aesthetically pleasing it “should” be right, and even bloody-mindedness. I don’t want to over-state the volume of research that has been fuelled by personal enmity, but there are numerous well-known cases which are nothing if not amusing.

Essentially, though, the scientific method begins with some form of speculation, which is formally repackaged in a manner permitting it to be systematically examined, and, ideally, to be proved false if it is wrong. This is called a falsifiable hypothesis, and these are the grist to the mill of science.

After some robust effort has failed to falsify a hypothesis, it can begin to claim some legitimacy. At some point, people begin to call it a theory instead. Theories begin to accumulate associated ideas, perhaps additional hypotheses built on the assumption that the theory may be correct, because this is no longer seen as a far-fetched idea.

In strict terms, a theory is never a “fact”. In principle, a new discovery or interpretation could always emerge to falsify it, and any subordinate ideas which depend upon it. For all practical purposes, however, there comes a time when so much evidence has accumulated in support of a theory that it requires wilful perversity to continue doubting it. Evolution is the obvious example here. Does that mean that everything is known, every problem solved, every nuance understood? No; of course not. If the day ever comes when everything about evolution is known, it will be sad one indeed for those of us who have spent their lives in pursuit of further knowledge. But it does mean that the fundamental principles are plain, and that they have withstood determined testing from powerful minds, for well over 150 years.

Scientists are sometimes accused of having vested interests in their paradigms, so that they would never challenge them. People promoting divine explanations for the fossil record and the diversity of modern life seem to make a career out of accusing biologists and palaeontologists of this kind of defensive behaviour. Maybe it is even true in some cases. But it is not generally true. Any scientist who could convincingly unseat Darwin would achieve instant celebrity. Many have tried; all have failed. Those who appear to have come close have generally done so only by disingenuously rephrasing the question.

But that’s another story….

It will be obvious that there is no hard-and-fast point at which a hypothesis becomes a theory, or at which a theory achieves near-factual status. These are just words; words have no real bearing on whether something is right or whether it is wrong, true or false, anyway.

Nor – and this is a vital point, even occasionally overlooked by some scientists – does consensus. To state the obvious, there was once a time when “everyone” thought the Earth was flat, a time when everyone thought the Sun revolved around the Earth, and so on. Agreement – even the agreement of all the world’s leading thinkers – does not make something true. Science is no respecter of authority. Even if there were no other differences, this alone puts the lie to occasional ill-informed claims that science is just another system of belief, like a kind of religion. I have never heard of any religion where the clerics spend their time trying to pick fault with their scriptures, to prove them wrong.

If there is any “mere belief” lying at the heart of science, it is the belief that an objective reality exists independent of our thoughts, that our senses are a useful guide to learning about it, and that evidence trumps belief any day.

Oh, and the optimism to believe we are capable of figuring it out, rather than cowering before the enormity of the unknown.

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