Scientific Method: Explaining Science To A 5-Year-Old

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Imagine you go to a village in Norway and you see a strange phenomenon. You see Sun rising at midnight! Then you see the same thing the following day, the day after that, and back-to-back for a week. Based on your “observations”, you come to a generalized conclusion that the Sun rises at the midnight in that particular village.

The process of making a generalized conclusion based on observations is known as Inductive Reasoning, which we also talked about in our story on Knowledge. Induction feels like a reasonable approach too, as that is what we humans do in most of our lives with reasonable success. But the problem with induction is that we can never be certain about our claim. Maybe the Sun won’t rise on the 100th day, or 1000th day or some 30303rd day. As you might guess by now, it’s a never-ending testing process; and thus coming to a certain conclusion through induction is not possible.

One important philosopher, Karl Popper, came up with an idea to circumvent this problem. His idea was to reverse the approach, that is, first make a claim, and then test the claim with observations. I know it sounds a bit strange at first, so let me explain the idea in detail.

In our example, even 1000 (meaning countless) consistent observations won’t help us know if a statement is true with certainty. But it will take just one conflicting observation — let’s say some 1001st day when the Sun does not pop up — to reject our statement as false with certainty. 

So, the idea of Karl Popper is to first make a statement and then test the statement with observations with a motive of falsifying the statement. If we can not falsify the statement despite rigorous observation and testing, we accept that statement as the provisional truth for the time being. 

But remember, we have not proved that our statement is true, we have just proved that our statement is not false up to the moment. 

The statement that we make at the beginning — which could be both true or false — is known as Hypothesis. If you remember from our story on Knowledge, this line of reasoning is Deductive Reasoning, where we go from broad generalization to specific observations.

If you think about it, this is also our common-sense way of understanding the world. We first see some observations, which then creates some questions in our minds. We followed that with a hunch (basically hypothesis), and then test our hypothesis with more observations. And based on our analysis of the test, we come to a conclusion. This seemingly common-sense method of generating knowledge about the world is known as the Scientific Method.

Therefore, if one were to summarize the Scientific Method in steps, the following would be the one-line summary: 

Scientific Method = Observe -> Question -> Hypothesis -> Experiment -> Analysis -> Conclusion

But remember, there is an important catch regarding what can be a valid Scientific Hypothesis. According to Popper, a Scientific Hypothesis should be both testable and falsifiable

Falsifiable does not mean false, but only means it can be falsified by an observation that is logically possible. For example, if I make a statement that “a 10-eyed mammal lives on earth”, it is not possible to falsify the statement even after countless observations of no 10-eyed mammal (as I could always say it is out there somewhere hidden in the Amazon forest!)

And that’s because what we have gathered is only an absence of evidence, not evidence of absence.

Rather, if a make a statement that “there is no 10-eyed mammal on earth”, that statement is logically falsifiable, because just one observation of a 10-eyed mammal will be enough to falsify the statement. 

Similarly, if I were to make a statement that “a fairy created a lake”, that statement is neither testable, nor falsifiable, and thus can not be considered as a valid Scientific Hypothesis. 

Popper considers falsifiability as an important demarcation between Science and Pseudo-Science. Thus, statements like a fairy created a lake can at best be considered Pseudoscience.

To sum up, Scientific Method, despite the dreaded name, is actually a common-sense way of understanding and explaining the world. Sometimes we update our explanation, and sometimes we completely reject our explanation and move on in our pursuit of finding a better explanation, which is basically what Science also does. 

Science, in that sense, attempts to disprove an explanation, rather than continually support it. Thus, ironic as it may sound, we should not trust Science, but rather always look for ways to disprove it! This is what I meant when I wrote Scientific Knowledge is provisional, meaning the best we can do at the moment in our previous story. 

And yet, we value Science as humanity’s greatest tool for knowing our world, because Science can help us progressively approach the truth, even if we may not be certain about the final explanation.

But wait, there is one final confusion that we need to clear.

Add that theory vs law here. And end with:

So, in our next story, we will talk about the difference between Theory and Law, and how they relate those concepts with the concept of Hypothesis that we delved deeper into in our current story.

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