We Are All Scientists

I want to first thank you all for engaging in such lively discussion after my first blog post. I intend to respond to many of your comments, and I apologize in advance that I won't be able to get to them all. I have noticed certain themes emerging, however. So, before diving into new developments in the world of physics, biology, chemistry, paleontology, etc., perhaps it would be helpful to take some time to discuss how we do science.

Science and nature are not the same thing. This may seem like a semantic quibble, but it's an extremely important distinction if we're going to be able to discuss scientific topics in any meaningful way. Nature simply is. It is the inherent property of being, regardless of what we have to say about it. Nature is the stars, the trees, the animals, the atmosphere, the oceans, black holes, and all the discrete stuff in between. Nature is the particles that make up the stuff of the cosmos. Nature is the way this stuff behaves.

Science is a tool. Science is man-made, and therefore subject to all of the user error and after-the-fact "holy crap, we should have known better" insights that any other human endeavor has encountered. Science is not the reason that plants photosynthesize. They just do. It is their nature to undergo photosynthesis. Science is how we observe this phenomenon, interact with it, describe it, and gather evidence as to its consistency. Science is also how we manipulate nature to learn more about it, or in many cases, to utilize it to the advantage of promoting human interests (an exciting idea for a blog, but space won't allow it today. What do you think?).

Science is fundamentally self-correcting. In science, we strive to gather as much information as we can about the natural world. We are constantly comparing this information to our previously held theories to ensure that our theories don't need an overhaul. But please don't get me wrong: science is a man-made endeavor. It is still subject to human flaws, such as arrogance, oversight, greed, and pride. The best tool the scientific community has to counter these mistakes is consensus. Many different people are often exploring similar topics at the same time. I won't pretend that they aren't most likely competing for grant money or glory to be the first to describe a new phenomenon, but in this case, competition is one of the healthiest parts of the exploration process. Laboratories don't agree in science to "be nice;" they agree when they have to. They agree when the evidence supports the claim. This is not a perfect system, but it is the best system we have for understanding nature. It has worked for hundreds of years and although major errors have been encountered along the way, looking at where we stand with medical, technological, and computational advancements today, I'd say science has worked in our favor more than a handful of times.

I have no expectation that every man, woman, and child should strive to become a professional scientist. I have every expectation that every man, woman, and child should strive to become more scientifically literate. We don't have to perform laboratory experiments to think scientifically. A scientific worldview can be gained simply by reading, engaging with others, and perhaps most importantly, striving to possess two traits that all scientific thinkers embrace: skepticism and open-mindedness. Scientists don't claim to have all the answers. In fact, we often have more questions. This week, I want to discuss the how of science, not just the why. What does that mean to you? What would you like to talk nerdy about?

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