20 Nov

One word that scares people is Science. They imagine a messed haired, bottle-glass-thick glasses, unkempt man in a dirty lab coat mixing colorful fuming solutions, with a deranged facial expression. Final touch: a high-pitched unintelligible gibberish shouted to warn every one about the end of days. No wonder many messages from scientists are received by the public with skepticism to say the least. Preconceived ideas have a way of preventing people of seeing reality even when it’s right in front of them.

Scientists come in all sizes and shapes. AND backgrounds. Representation is another matter – (most probably) linked to the way society “takes” the different communities and “sees” scientists but that’s a subject for another post.

Science in itself is NOT an immutable block of knowledge amassed by one specific kind of individuals. Science is actually a large number of sciences or, more accurately, of scientific fields. We have life & medical sciences (like “mine”), earth sciences, along with mathematics, physics, and engineering. We also have the social sciences. Each field requiring specialization in order to increase knowledge.

Despite the (huge) diversity of fields (that often overlap) the scientific approach is common to all. One Science that steers them all. With some variations, it (usually) includes 5 stages.

First we identify The Problem. This is the issue to be addressed or solved. It can be a “small” but pressing issue (for example, people being allergic to the glue in Band-Aids). Or a bigger question (for example, a highly contagious disease). It may be addressed all at once (creating an alternative Band-Aid). Or the problem may be “cut” in smaller (more manageable) blocks (study the agent of the disease, one component of that agent, how long does the agent live outside the body, etc.).

After The Problem is identified, a Hypothesis (or several) is (are) proposed. This means that an idea of how The Problem should be addressed, or an explanation of what caused the problem, is put forth.

The idea/explanation is then tested. The way how this is done is The Method (or methodology). Usually it’s experimental – meaning it involves experiments using (more or less sophisticated) technologies. The aim of these experiments is to collect data. More data means more information. More information means the conclusions taken from them are more robust (meaning more credible/reliable). If we’re studying something that affects communities, reliable data are the ones that include people from diverse origins, representative of the global community.

Then comes The Analysis. Regardless of how data was collected, nowadays most methods of data analysis involve, at least, computer technology. This technology is faster and allows for analyzing increasingly higher amounts of data.

From here we go to The Interpretation of the results – meaning we try to make sense of all the information we collected. In a good scenario, the results will confirm the initial idea/explanation (The Hypothesis) and our Conclusions (last stage) are encouraging. Oftentimes that does not happen and we have to start again. Propose another hypothesis, use different methods, analyze data again, and/or check our interpretation again.

Contrary to what it might seem, we’re not starting from zero this time. We’ve amassed a great deal of information and we know, at least, one way that doesn’t work. So this apparent failure is anything but. It provides key information and allows us to move in another way. This is one of the basis of scientific progress. It usually happens in several research groups, sometimes simultaneously. Data from different communities may lead to different conclusions. Which will prompt our discussions to understand why and how to explain those differences. And we start again. Until there’s a breakthrough, however small. Then we go on to explain another associated Problem or a different part of the initial Problem. Until a whole body of knowledge emerges and allows for a reliable solution.

So the next time you hear that scientists don’t know nothing or that do not agree, know that actually we are still discussing and trying to find answers. Visualize one (or more) teams joining together and contributing to confirm that the information is solid.

Never decide not to believe in science (whatever the field) just because someone did not to bother to explain that we are (always) still working on the problem. And that work is being done for everyone’s benefit. To give you the most recent information on a subject. To provide you with the best care. To provide information that helps you decide what works best for you.

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