How should a person approach science when he/she doesn’t know anything about it? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
How should a person approach science when he/she doesn’t know anything about it?
I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to this. But here are some things that I think about when I’m approaching a field I don’t know much about.
1) It is really, really hard to find out facts. This means that most recent science, except about trivial things, is uncertain. Unless something has been known in a field for a long time, it may well not be true. This is not because scientists are lying or something, it’s because science is really hard.
2) Add to this: most of the easy questions, like “why is the sky blue?” have already been answered. What’s left is the hard stuff, like “how do we cure cancer?” and “how do ecosystems work?” and “why do particles have the mass that they do?” Because the remaining questions are so hard, it’s unsurprising that researchers struggle to get good answers.
3) Scientists are people. By and large, they are really, really interested in their subject, and really, really passionate about it. That means they have strong opinions and are endlessly willing to delve into minutiae. It’s important to remember that people who are really passionate about a subject and are totally up on the details can still be wrong.
All of this is to say that I spend a lot of time wondering whether we actually know whatever it is that is being talked about.
Then I try to figure out how people learn about whatever is being talked about. In archaeology, for instance, most researchers are perforce limited to sites. Because archaeology is really hard, it takes forever and is a huge amount of work to dig out even a very small site. Worse, the act of digging destroys the site. So people have to ask and answer very large questions about societies based on tiny areas that can’t be retested. None of this means that archaeologists are bad or the science is bad, it just means that the tools that are available don’t make it easy to answer big questions. So anything people are telling you is standing on a long line of inference and small scraps of data.
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