David Houggy: Science — what is it good for?
Science cannot prove anything.
This fact, although taught in many science classes, perhaps obliquely, is often misunderstood and forgotten. However, scientific discovery is the best way we have for understanding anything about how the physical world works.
Science is much more than a set of facts about a topic or results from scientific experiments. Science is a process, a way to discover new information about the world, and from there describe a model for how it works. A scientist will observe something curious or anomalous in an experiment, or in observing the world, or even in thinking about the world (as Einstein did with his theory of relativity), and from there create some ideas about what is happening, and perhaps why it is happening. These ideas (usually called hypotheses) are then tested in a series of scientifically designed experiments (designed to control for extraneous factors and isolate the phenomena being observed).
But science cannot conclusively prove that these ideas are right. They can only say if the theory is wrong.
Take, for example, the “laws” of gravity, which Newton “discovered” in 1687 (we’ll explain another time why those words are in quotes). His formulas have many practical applications and stood as the “law” for more than 200 years. But it turns out that they were not complete. Einstein came along in the early 1900s and significantly altered our understanding of gravity by imagining what would happen when objects are moving at high rates of speed (near the speed of light), among other things. It turns out that under these conditions (which humans don’t directly notice because we can’t travel that fast), the old understanding needed to be modified. His theories have since been validated in countless experiments.
So, was Newton “wrong?” In a way, yes. His theories are accurate to this day — but only under certain conditions. The further you go outside of those conditions (e.g., you are traveling very fast), the less accurate answers his model gives. Einstein’s refinements correct these errors. How important is this? Although the average human does experience very small effects from relativity, they are so small as to be unnoticeable. But GPS satellites are traveling at a high enough rate of speed and altitude that if they did not take Einstein’s relativistic effects into account, then the GPS system on your phone would become increasingly inaccurate, accumulating an additional error of over 30 feet each day!
When people say that “the science is settled” on something, we sometimes get into trouble, because we then inevitably discover something that calls prior results into question. This is the very essence of science. It is a never-ending course of experimentation to eliminate wrong answers. By doing this, we eventually hone in on answers which become durable and lasting — but not infallible. This can be disconcerting to the casual observer, who is left to wonder if science knows what it is doing. But as Nobel physicist Richard Feynman said, “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”
We at Aspen Science Center are dedicated to advancing the public understanding of science. We are developing new programs for youth and adults to better explain not just the cool scientific “facts,” but also the scientific process and how it works. Science requires creativity, problem solving and critical thinking. We believe that everyone, regardless of their background or profession, can benefit by building these skills, and applying a scientific mindset to many aspects of life. An educated electorate depends on the ability of people to think critically and discern fact from fiction. Learn more about what we are up to at http://www.AspenScienceCenter.org.
David Houggy is a resident of Aspen and the president of Aspen Science Center.
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