In a lot of my discussions online I see a lack of knowledge in how science actually works. I will try to explain the general process of science in an easy to understand flow. I see that science has 3 basic parts:
- See a thing that happens.
- Research/Experiment to see if it’s true.
- Publish your findings.
See a Thing
Scientist A see’s a situation related to their field of expertise that causes an effect. I’m going to label things to make it easier to understand, so Scientist A sees Thing A in Situation A which causes Effect A. The scientist, let’s call them Chris, wants to figure out if that’s something that actually happens normally, if anyone else knows about it, and if it’s testable.
Just so they don’t look stupid, Chris reads up on whether anyone else has noticed this before and if there’s any existing science to support it. If Chris finds anything it could fit into any of these categories:
- Inconclusive – Experiments were done, but there was not enough data or the data was not accurate enough to decide whether Thing A in Situation A causes Effect A.
- Related Data – Scientists were experimenting on something else and noticed that Thing A in Situation A causes Effect A.
- Speculation – Some math, or observed trends caused a scientist to write a paper about how they think Thing A in Situation A would have Effect A. They might have information on how an experiment might be setup and how the results might be beneficial.
If Chris wants to continue pursuing Effect A, they need to create a hypothesis, ie. if Thing A is in Situation A then we will see Effect A. This is clear and testable. To test it, Chris requires money and resources.
It’s all about the money. Science is speculation till you have the money and resources to actually perform the experiment. There are many sources and they fit loosely into these categories:
- Corporations – Many scientific discoveries are beneficial for someone’s bottom line. They’ll pay for the science, help the scientist publish and patent the results if they can.
- Educational Institutions – The more science they turn out, the more prestige they have, and the more they can charge for tuition. Why have educated people on staff if you can’t exploit them for money?
- Government – Countries stay ahead by being more advanced than others. Scientists can apply for grants from many of the different departments of government including the Department of Defence, the National Science Foundation, and the Center for Disease Control.
With money and resources secured Chris can go conduct experiments. When Chris first observed Thing A in Situation A, Thing B was also present and Situation B was nearby. Chris needs to construct the experiment in such a way that only Situation A is acting on Thing A. There are many outcomes that might happen:
- Confirmed – After isolating Thing A and applying Situation A to it Chris finds that Effect A happens 90% of the time, supporting the original hypothesis. This is the outcome scientists hope for, but don’t often get.
- New Result – Once Thing A was isolated and was Situation A applied to it Effect A happened 55% of the time and Effect B happened 34% of the time. What do do now:
- Try Again – Restructure the experiment to better isolate Situation A’s affect on Thing A.
- Try Something New – If Effect B could help save/make a lot of money, further research funding could be obtained to figure out how to isolate Effect B or make it happen more often.
- Fail – Effect A happened, but with no predictable frequency. Chris should either get more funding to run new hypothesis and experiments, or publish the findings so no one else wastes money on it, or both.
- Academic Research – Chris could go through data-sets from experiments already performed by other scientists. This happens most often in the Social Sciences. Social scientists often collect way more data than they need on many different subjects. Cross referencing multiple social experiments looking for data to support your hypothesis is a cost effective way to do research.
Once you’ve finished your experimentation, you write it up in a way that other scientists not only see your results, but they can also reproduce what you did to get those results. If your findings are significant enough, or you’re lucky, a scientific journal might agree to publish your findings. There are a lot of outcomes here:
- First! – You’re first to publish anything like this and you get credit for being first. You win! This is why you don’t want to wait too long to publish.
- Wrong! – After publishing other scientists tested your hypothesis and could not recreate your results. Other scientists love to prove some big breakthrough wrong. This is why you need to be absolutely sure before you publish.
- Validated! – Other scientists tested your hypothesis and recreated your results. You have brought prestige to your institution and have advanced science in your field. This is how you become a well-known scientist in your field.
- Game Changer – You have published findings that have been validated AND they cause a paradigm shift in your field. “It was all one way until Chris published their findings.” This is why people become scientists.
I cannot stress this enough: when findings are published, scientists will check your work. If they cannot repeat the experiment or the results, everything you’ve worked for is gone. Even worse, if you lied, good luck getting grants or getting published if other scientists find you falsified data. No science is accepted by your field unless it’s been re-tested over and over. And the more it’s tested and re-verified, the more scientists trust it, and it will become part of the accepted science in that field.
There are a lot of myths surrounding this process:
- Members Only – People think that all scientists know each other. There are hundreds or even thousands of scientists in each field of science. They might know of many, but they do not know all.
- Team Players – People often say that scientists are all working together. Being first, proving others wrong, and changing the game are all unintentionally designed to pit scientists against each other. They are professionals and act accordingly, but they will take you down if you’re wrong.
- Money – I’ve heard “if you have enough money, you can make up the science.” If you’ve been paying attention, you know that this would never work. Sure you got a paper published, but every scientist will shoot you down faster than you can say dissertation.
- More Money – I’ve also heard “scientists get rich off of bribes.” Nope, not gonna work for the same reasons I stated before. Depending upon the industry you can make decent money doing science, but it’s not a good way to get rich.
- Scientific Agenda – “They’ve got their own agenda.” I guess so, but if the science is not repeatable, no agenda can be pushed. For example: a “Think Tank” can fund research to prove climate change is a hoax, but if other climate scientists cannot reproduce the results, then it’s invalidated and will not used by the rest of the climate scientists.
Chris hypothesized that when Thing A is affected by Situation B, Effect A happens. Company A funded Chris’ experiments and they found that Effect A happens 90% of the time. Chris then published the results in Scientific Things Journal and other scientists were able to reproduce the experiment with similar results. Company A has now patented a process based on Chris’ findings.
I hope you now have a better understanding of how the scientific community works.