Think, for a moment, about your relationship to science in your daily life. It could be something as simple as playing on your phone or choosing from the vast array of food options at the grocery store. But it could also be something as complicated as taking blood-thinning medications or determining the unseen, long-term effects of pesticides. Undoubtedly, science is a huge part of our modern, daily life. So much so that we often get new and conflicting information from scientific discoveries. All one needs to do is turn on the news to hear the latest scientifically tested dietary recommendations, which somehow contradicts another diet that was also deemed “scientific.”
Understandably, the elusive nature of ever-changing scientific discoveries, along with flippant news reporting, can make people confused and distrustful of science. Perhaps there is no better example of this type of confusion than the discussion of vaccine efficacy within the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. However, this issue extends to various other expressions of scientific disbelief, such as the lack of consensus on genetically modified food. Frustrations about issues like these may come from a misunderstanding of what science is really for, and even from the way science is communicated in public spaces. In both cases, one crucial aspect is missing: the fact that science does not find or hold all the answers. Rather, it is a method, a process, of searching for one thing — truth.
In listening to the news, reading an article or browsing on the internet, you are unlikely to discover this scientific process, or recognize science as a continuous search. And even if you understood these aspects, they can quickly be lost by the media’s rhetoric. Today, news and media in general offer short, sensational, consumable pieces of information. It is a trend that has been applied to the dissemination of both science and other complex issues into the public sphere. From the various outrageous statements of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson to wild claims of genetically modified tomatoes helping to prevent cancer, tidbits of interesting scientific observations have been blown out of proportion and thrown into public discourse with little explanation or context. What good is any of this information if we the audience have no basis to evaluate it on? Additionally, what can we do with this information if it changes when we have already accepted it or perhaps even counted on it? These questions, along with the onslaught of information such as these internet tidbits, are the very reason why we should remind ourselves about the role of science and its relationship to the truth.
Scientific inquiry, in its truest form, is based on observation and experimentation. Forming hypotheses and testing their merit is at the centre of this process. And perhaps it is in this process where the confusion begins. In conducting an experiment, a scientist is not attempting to arrive at the answer, but rather an answer, based on what they have observed to be true. They may come up with various explanations for one single phenomenon, then test each of them only to discover they are all incorrect. Even when a scientist arrives at a seemingly correct explanation of an event, that same explanation is still open to interrogation and re-experimentation in order to verify its validity.
However, even confirming the validity of a scientific explanation or theory does not make it final. This qualification may be the second point of confusion. At any time, when new information and observations become available, a theory might become subject to change. This process includes any and all theories, even ones we generally consider to be undisputable, like gravity. So, if things we accept to be true can change, what is the point of scientific experimentation?
The answer could be considered simple, if not a little disturbing. Science does not find nor claim to find the truth. Rather, it searches for truth constantly, arriving at a viable conclusion derived from observation, experimentation and the generation of fact-based knowledge. It is in this search that science is made — to constantly seek to understand the world around us. In fact, if we ever found the truth about the world and the universe, then science might cease to exist. However, just because science lacks this concrete certainty, it does not make it less important or valid. Maintaining this robust methodology of testing and experimenting to challenge scientific hypotheses, along with a certain level of open-mindedness, ensures that science stays honest, and ready, to search for new ideas and discoveries.
Accepting the uncertain, exploratory and non-finite nature of science may help people better navigate through the new information they absorb every day. Keeping these attributes in mind, we may be able to parse out sensational reports to see them for what they are, and deflect erroneous claims so we do not feel betrayed when they are revealed to be incorrect. Hopefully, in returning to the root of science as a continuous search, we can learn to identify false conclusions as well as misleading claims, and eventually, become more trusting of science.