Thinking like a Scientist


Would life really be better if everyone thought like a scientist? I don’t know and I am uncertain. That’s the mark of a scientist. We realize what we don’t know and we pursue matters so that we are more certain. But we acknowledge and live with uncertainty. An unyielding curiosity and willingness to see the world as Nature presents it to us is what I would argue the keystone of the scientific viewpoint. Note that I said “what I would argue”. We will never be absolutely certain about anything. But we can be less wrong.

Some of you may be familiar with the George Box quote: “All models are wrong. But some are useful.” We simplify the universe we perceive and make models about it. They won’t be totally correct, but they will help us understand. The Sun will rise in the morning because the Earth rotates around it. Smoking increases the risk of lung cancer because of the carcinogens in the cigarettes. Exposure to a drug is a prerequisite to addiction to that drug. But will the Sun always rise in the morning? What affects the ability of the carcinogens in cigarettes to work? How does cocaine hijack the dopamine response? And so we keep on investigating. If new evidence is found, we add to our model or overturn it. Easier said than done, and it takes quite a bit of effort to incorporate new knowledge that challenges our prior knowledge.

How to actually start knowing, then? Karl Popper, one of the great philosophers of science, came up with the concept of falsifiability, a requirement before we can put our stake into something. Its essence: is there a way to prove something false? Can we prove that all swans are white? Can we find any black swans? Can we come up with a method to disprove the germ model of disease? Thus, we have hypotheses and experiments. These hypotheses must be testable. There has to be the possibility that we can be wrong. We just have to have the will to be less wrong. There are things we are unable to apply falsifiability and thus we remain uncertain. How do you disprove the meaning of life? How do you disprove ghosts and witches? And let’s be brave: how much of a role does self-control play in addiction? How much is a product of uncontrollable processes in the brain and how much of it is a choice?

Bravery is required, since we know that poking at “common sense” makes many people uncomfortable. Not just bravery in asking questions, but bravery in being wrong. For every non-orthodox idea that proves to reshape our view of the world (heliocentrism, germ model, addiction as a brain disease), there are a thousand non-orthodox ideas that led nowhere. Think of Newton and the occult. The medieval chemists and alchemy. Even recent ones: power posing, fatty foods and obesity, and cold fusion. Scientists are human. All too human.

Some may accuse scientists of being overly reductionist. That all we see are a series of cold, flat mechanical processes. That the relief of summer rain is just body heat being transferred to water droplets. That the joy from a hug just results from the neural transmissions of certain proteins. That the beauty of the world is just atoms interacting in accord with the Laws of Thermodynamics. I would ask our accusers: We make stories about what we perceive around us. Why not allow them to become better?

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