Friday, 27 August 2010

Why Can We Trust What Science Tells Us?

I was recently chatting to someone regarding how mind-blowing our universe is. It is far more incredible than anything we’ve ever been able to imagine, whilst being deeper and more miraculous than our forefathers had ever suspected. I was then taken aback to be told that this is simply ‘my belief’, just as others may have ‘their belief’. It is just a subjective opinion, I was informed. The scientific method is one of the greatest notions ever to be conceived of, and it is because of the way science works that I know I can trust what it tells me. How does science actually work?

Firstly, science funding relies primarily upon grants. These are large sponsors who give you the money to do the research. Now these people do not casually give their cash away to anybody who asks for it. They have to be persuaded that it will be put to good use in important and worthwhile research.

So how are they persuaded? This comes through scientists and establishments building up a reputation as high-quality researchers who have published several reliable papers that have stood the test of time. If you do good research, then you build up a reputation amongst your peers. Your standing within science will increase, thus building upon a reputation that sponsors can look at to give you money in future. If you produce poor data, people are less likely to give you money, for fear of being associated with more poor data.

How can we tell who is a good scientist? Science is built upon honesty and criticism. Once you have performed some work, you publish your work in a journal. This journal is available for all to see, to dissect, to question and to criticise. If your work holds out after this deep analysis from experts all over the world, then your reputation is enhanced. If you have acquired poor data, it is discarded and forgotten about. The better scientist you are, the more likely you are to publish in more prestigious journals such as Nature.

We can, therefore, be quite confident that when we read research in Nature it is reliable. For every article we read, it has been analysed by thousands of scientists all over the world who are far more qualified than you or I will ever be.

Whatever people say, it is almost unanimously accepted across the West that science is superior to any other way of thinking. That is why the Vatican keeps caving in: the notion that the Earth is the centre of the Solar System is now redundant; the once-opposed theory of evolution is now accepted. If they were confident in themselves, they would hold firm with their original opinion and tell everybody that science is wrong. But they don’t because, even if they don’t explicitly say it, they know that science is the only way of knowing truth. Those people who say that science is just a ‘belief’ are suddenly quite confident in it when being flown across the world on holiday.

Establishments spreading drivel have disguised themselves in a scientific aura to draw in the unwary: Creation ‘Science’, Intelligent Design, homeopathy and nonsense scare stories in the Daily Mail all pretend to be scientific to try and fool us. But none of these has stood up to the scrutiny that we all know and love in science.

I am a big fan of Charles Darwin because his amazingly simple idea, from ignorant and superstitious times, still stands the test of time after 150 years of examination. Supporting data comes in each day, and our increased knowledge in the world around us merely confirms ever more strongly that what he proposed was correct.

The scientific method really is a beautiful concept. Far less beautiful, alas, than the universe itself.

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