Do you consider yourself a scientist? I’d argue that you are.
Picture this. You wake up one morning craving a bowl of cereal, but to your great disappointment, the milk is past the expiration date. However, there’s still hope! It’s only a few days past. The milk doesn’t look curdled. You give it a sniff and it smells just fine.
You taste it and it tastes normal. So you go for it and have a nice bowl of cereal and milk, then go about your day. Many of us have experienced this before. But did you realize in this scenario, you were also conducting a science experiment?
We don’t do so purposefully, but children and adults alike follow the scientific method all the time. You might remember it from high school: ask a question, form a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, gather data, then draw conclusions, or something along those lines. In the example above, you had a question: is the milk actually spoiled? Then you formed a hypothesis based on observation: probably not, it’s only a few days past expiring and it doesn’t look, smell, or taste bad. You tested your hypothesis by eating a bowl of cereal with the milk. And finally you drew conclusions based on the results: it probably wasn’t spoiled considering you weren’t in the bathroom all day. We do science all the time without even realizing.
I’m personally a scientist in training, so maybe I’m a little biased, but I think we can all benefit from more scientific thinking more of the time. Why? The pandemic.
Ok, I’m not talking about “the” pandemic, although that’s certainly been on all of our minds recently. I’m talking about the misinformation pandemic. Politicians spread fake news, your cousin “proves” the Earth is flat on Facebook, and celebrities peddle weight loss teas and detoxes. In the age of information, we are constantly bombarded with so-called truths and cures, and it’s hard to differentiate fact from fiction. But for scientists, it’s just another day at work. A core part of being a scientist is weighing multiple, often conflicting, viewpoints. And surrounded by so much misinformation, we all should be channeling our inner scientist whenever possible.
In future columns, I’ll talk about more of the skills scientists use to make sense of competing claims, but one that I’ll point out today is: try to prove your ideas wrong. If you look on Google or Facebook long enough, it’s easy to find some obscure piece of evidence or testimonial to support your views. But if it’s even easier to find evidence that disproves them, you should think twice about whether or not your views are accurate. It’s better to correctly know when you’re wrong than to falsely think you’re right. Your ideas are like a hand in poker: you’ve got to know when to hold ‘em and even more importantly, know when to fold ‘em.
Moving forward, I’ll evaluate a number of hot scientific issues.
Questions like, why haven’t we cured cancer yet or how bad is climate change actually, are on lots of our minds. And for every question, there are ten supposed answers. I’ll walk through what I think and why I think it, then I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
I hope you’ll join me along the way to learn some science and, even better, learn to think like a scientist in the process.