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3 Vital Rules of Science, In Plain English

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL –Feb 6, 2018, The SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches from Pad 39A. Photo Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Science. What is it about a simple method for studying the world that’s changing our life at breakneck speeds? The scientific method is nothing more than a handful of smart,&nbsp;sensible rules scientists use to make claims about the world and then build on those claims using the same set of simple rules. The scientific method isn’t overwhelming, intimidating or elitist. We&nbsp;just need to understand some basic rules so we can support scientific research and question scientific claims. Here are three vital rules of science in plain English:

1. Falsifiability.

It’s not a scientific theory unless it can be used to make a prediction and have that prediction turn out dead wrong. That’s what it means to test something experimentally. Albert Einstein made a prediction in 1915 about how much gravity bends light.&nbsp;There was no way to test it until a total eclipse in 1919 allowed astronomers to observe our sun bending the rays of distant stars, confirming&nbsp;Einstein’s prediction. The new evidence&nbsp;updated Newtonian physics with the theory of relativity.

At that same time, Sigmund Freud was doing groundbreaking work in the field of psychology but his theories weren’t falsifiable–any challenges to his theories could be explained away by adding addendums to the theory, not by testing it. While both men were nominated, Einstein won the Nobel Prize.

We tend to think of a scientist as someone who gets a hypothesis in&nbsp;his or her head then sets off to try to prove it. When you think you’re right about something, it’s only human nature to want to go out and find evidence to support your convictions. Bad news is, it’s easy to find evidence that supports your beliefs even if your beliefs are wrong. The search for supporting evidence is considered a human bias. Science calls it a ‘confirmation bias.’ In its ideal form, science keeps our need-to-be-right in check with getting at the truth. Science sets out to find disconfirming evidence.

A scientific hypothesis generates measurable predictions. The requirement of falsifiability means your hypothesis also has to survive rigorous attempts to find examples where the predictions are wrong.&nbsp;This means an established scientific theory is simply a theory that hasn’t been disproven – yet!

It may sound flimsy. Especially if you find the idea of absolute truth attractive. But put it this way: if scientific theories were boxers, who’d be more credible? The guy who welcomes a challenge, goes round after round over thousands of fights but has never, ever been beaten? Or the guy who boasts he’s the strongest, best fighter in the world, but won’t step in the ring?

The Encyclopedia Britannica puts it beautifully: “Scientific theories are instead incrementally corroborated through the absence of disconfirming evidence in a number of well-designed experiments.” Like a fighter, a scientific theory is a reigning champion until it’s overthrown by a theory that survives more and better challenges.

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KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL –Feb 6, 2018, The SpaceX Falcon Heavy launches from Pad 39A. Photo Credit: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Science. What is it about a simple method for studying the world that’s changing our life at breakneck speeds? The scientific method is nothing more than a handful of smart, sensible rules scientists use to make claims about the world and then build on those claims using the same set of simple rules. The scientific method isn’t overwhelming, intimidating or elitist. We just need to understand some basic rules so we can support scientific research and question scientific claims. Here are three vital rules of science in plain English:

1. Falsifiability.

It’s not a scientific theory unless it can be used to make a prediction and have that prediction turn out dead wrong. That’s what it means to test something experimentally. Albert Einstein made a prediction in 1915 about how much gravity bends light. There was no way to test it until a total eclipse in 1919 allowed astronomers to observe our sun bending the rays of distant stars, confirming Einstein’s prediction. The new evidence updated Newtonian physics with the theory of relativity.

At that same time, Sigmund Freud was doing groundbreaking work in the field of psychology but his theories weren’t falsifiable–any challenges to his theories could be explained away by adding addendums to the theory, not by testing it. While both men were nominated, Einstein won the Nobel Prize.

We tend to think of a scientist as someone who gets a hypothesis in his or her head then sets off to try to prove it. When you think you’re right about something, it’s only human nature to want to go out and find evidence to support your convictions. Bad news is, it’s easy to find evidence that supports your beliefs even if your beliefs are wrong. The search for supporting evidence is considered a human bias. Science calls it a ‘confirmation bias.’ In its ideal form, science keeps our need-to-be-right in check with getting at the truth. Science sets out to find disconfirming evidence.

A scientific hypothesis generates measurable predictions. The requirement of falsifiability means your hypothesis also has to survive rigorous attempts to find examples where the predictions are wrong. This means an established scientific theory is simply a theory that hasn’t been disproven – yet!

It may sound flimsy. Especially if you find the idea of absolute truth attractive. But put it this way: if scientific theories were boxers, who’d be more credible? The guy who welcomes a challenge, goes round after round over thousands of fights but has never, ever been beaten? Or the guy who boasts he’s the strongest, best fighter in the world, but won’t step in the ring?

The Encyclopedia Britannica puts it beautifully: “Scientific theories are instead incrementally corroborated through the absence of disconfirming evidence in a number of well-designed experiments.” Like a fighter, a scientific theory is a reigning champion until it’s overthrown by a theory that survives more and better challenges.

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