The nature of science

Do you tend to think that science is a body of unchanging factual information, and everything published in the scientific literature is correct? Read on…

If you said ‘yes’, then you’re probably in good company. Certainly that’s the way the media tend to portray science: someone presents a new piece of research in Science or Nature (two of the top science journals), and the findings are seized on by the news media as a new scientific ‘fact’ and the answer to our current ‘problem du jour’.  

But this indicates a misunderstanding of the nature of science. Scientists’ findings are often tentative, and subject to change as new data are generated. We’re often wrong: science can’t give a definitive answer, with a 100% chance of being correct. And we need to remember that. To quote Orac again:

[This] is the very nature of science. What is published the first time is considered tentative. It may or may not be correct. If other scientists can replicate the results or, even better, replicate the results and use them as a foundation to build upon and make new discoveries, only then does it become less frontier science. And if the results are replicated enough times and by enough people and used as a basis for further discoveries, to the point that they are considered settled results, only then can they become “textbook” science. What, alas, the public often doesn’t understand is that science is a process, not a bunch of facts, and that at its cutting edge it is often quite uncertain and controversial among scientists.

Think on this, the next time you read about a new piece of research in the paper, or see a report on TV.

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