We be scientists

Despite appearances to the contrary, I have been attending a gym since last summer. At the most I manage to get to the gym a couple of times a week, and walking the dog on the other days gives me at least a chance to stretch my legs (and his).

Anyone who attends a gym will know, you’ve got to have your headphones in. Partly, this is because the music choices offered by the gym through the speaker system are terrible, partly because it allows you to be in your own world and avoid any kind of meaningful human contact while you are a sweaty mess (what? Is this just me…?).

If I was to guess, I would say most people at the gym are listening to motivational music, something with a pounding beat to run along to. When researchers ask people what they choose to listen to, it is typically rock and pop over classical and choral, with a slight gender difference and changing preferences with age.

For me, I buck this trend entirely (and definitely not in a contrarian way…). I listen to podcasts, almost exclusively of the geeky variety with history and science being the topics of choice. One of my favourite podcasts at the moment is The Ancients from History Hit. Covering topics ranging from Neolithic Britain to Ancient Rome, just occasionally the podcast dives really deep back in time, covering such huge topics as the evolution of humans and dinosaurs.

The most recent podcast (at the time I am writing this) is about feathered dinosaurs. Featuring the host Tristan Hughes interviewing palaeontologist Henry Gee, this particular episode had me pumping the iron a little harder than usual (I hate myself already for writing that…).

Towards the end of the episode, while the pair are talking about the discovery of a variety of feathered dinosaurs over the years, Tristan tried to summarise the discussion by saying:

Pre-1995 we had [the] likes of archaeopteryx and you know those little snippets, but since then in those, as you say twenty-five almost thirty years down to the present day, we’ve learnt, we’ve found, well not we but these incredible palaeontologists have found and discovered all these feathered dinosaurs…

Tristan Hughes, The Ancients by History Hit

You have probably noticed the emphasis I have added to what Tristan had said, and it was this part of the discussion which caught my attention more than anything else being said. Tristan began what I suspect was going to be something along the lines of we’ve found and discovered all these feathered dinosaurs, but caught and corrected himself before doing so, saying instead what I have transcribed above.

To be clear, I don’t think anything nefarious was going on here. I don’t think Tristan was attempting to claim credit for the work of others, or pass himself off as a palaeontologist when he is in fact a historian. Rather, Tristan was about to speak of the scientific advancements from the position of a collective human endeavour. For whatever reason, he chose to stop himself and instead speak about the achievements of specific (albeit unnamed) scientists. What I found myself asking is, why?

There’s madness in our method

For some of you reading this post, science will be a lesson from school with vague memories of gravity and test tubes and chlorophyll. For some lucky people, science will be an academic pursuit or career. For me, science is a source of endless wonder and fascination as well as being immensely useful helping me with my work.

Ultimately, science is a search for truth and the best way of understanding the world we have managed to develop so far. Powered by the scientific method, countless numbers of people from all walks of life* are striving to separate fact from fiction across a range of disciplines from astrophysics to psychology, geology to economics. From there, people like me apply what has been learned to try and make the world a better place.

Science works because it is tested and checked. No matter how popular an idea, or how much we want it to be true, if the evidence does not support it, it’s gone**. Conversely, if the evidence supports the idea, it is trusted a little bit more, and helps guide more research. While scientific endeavours can be varied, they all include some key features:

  • A Hypothesis: something like an educated guess***, the hypothesis is the thing to be tested, to decide if it is true. If I drop my phone as I am typing this, my hypothesis might be it will fall to the floor at a certain rate.
  • An experiment or observation: this is the bit most people will be familiar with, and a lot easier written than actually done. It might involve developing an experiment to carry out, or observing a natural phenomenon. To test my hypothesis above, I could drop my phone and time it’s fall (presumably with another phone…).
  • Analysis: when you have the results, you’ve got to analyse the results. At this point you need some maths, and I suspect even more of you will be switching off here than when I mentioned science at the start. For my phone experiment here we will be calculating the rate it fell.
  • Conclusions: once you’ve analysed your data, you draw a conclusion. Did your results match the hypothesis? Did it show something different? Regardless you have learnt something, and can use the results to create whole new hypotheses to be tested. Maybe my phone fell slower than expected. That’s interesting, and might lead to a new hypothesis about dropping it from a height.
  • Theory: from all the evidence and conclusions you have, you can develop a theory to explain some part of reality. Contrary to the popular usage of the word, a theory is not a guess with no evidence, rather a theory is the best explanation we have for the world given the evidence. Far from being at the bottom of the scientific pile of evidence, a theory comes right at the top of what we strive to achieve. With enough experiments and data I might be able to develop the Theory of Phone Dropping to best explain the data I have.

Put all this together in a never-ending**** cycle, and you’ve got yourself a science.

All the glory, none of the work

As a never-ending cycle, science is an intensive task with work aplenty, providing the funding is there of course. As scientific knowledge has expanded, the work has become more and more specialised. It is only a couple of hundred years since an individual could know ‘everything’, but since then scientific knowledge has expanded exponentially.

With more and more specialised research, it is impossible for someone to know or work on but a fraction of science, and very few if any people work alone on their research. Science is a collective effort, where small changes and developments by individuals build to a leap forward for humanity as a whole. No one scientist, or at least rarely no one scientist, makes a discovery which revolutionises science on their own.

And for me, this collective effort expands beyond those doing the hands on research. Their are people like myself, applied scientists if you will, who use, in my case, research into mental illness to treat the patients who come through my clinic door.

But further still, science is driven by society as a whole. Without the backing of governments, research institutes and communities acknowledging the importance of scientific research, scientists would not have the time or resources needed to carry out their work. While the level of importance a particular society puts on science may vary, support it in some way they all do.

Science then, is a human endeavour which we all should be extremely proud of, keen to promote and use as far as possible in our everyday lives. It is also something I think we can all claim. It is a collective experience, regardless of where in the scientific process you appear. When Tristan Hughes corrected himself on the podcast, I think he was in the wrong. Science is all about the WE, and more than that, WE should be shouting about it from the rooftops just a little bit more often!

* Though of course, diversity is far from even being close to ideal!
** Or at least it should be. See also pseudoscience for all the times when that fails.
*** I know, I know, this is far from a good description…
**** In theory at least it is never-ending. Perceivable there could come a time when we have discovered everything we could possibly know. Hopefully that day is many millions of years in the future, or at the very least after I am long gone.

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