A scientific perspective can be one filled with wonder, about both what is and what can be
Why care about science? Science has already improved all of our lives, often even making life possible where it wasn’t before (via medical treatments). It also works on a personal level, as it can help you creatively solve problems and improve your everyday life. As the primary tool for us humans to know what’s real, science has the potential to fix problems and make the world a better place.
The scientific method is powerful, and so it also has the potential for causing harm. Discovering and fixing these ethical problems with science is an important part of ESTI’s mission. For instance, since all humans have bias and science is implemented by humans, science also has some bias. Science has also been misused in the past. We seek to use the tools of science for good, discovering and reducing bias in our thinking and in our society.
“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” -Richard Feynman
How can scientific reasoning be used to improve everyday life?
For many of us, thinking like a scientist elicits an image of an overly analytical, perhaps even robotic, person. We attribute a rare cleverness to the scientist, and while appealing, it seems out of reach.
In fact, scientific reasoning is just a refinement of how most of us think already. This takes some practice, even for scientists, but yields a rich clarity of mind that is well worth the effort. Relationships, creative projects, and career goals can all meaningfully benefit from scientific reasoning.
Science, rationality, critical thinking, skepticism – these are not proprietary to academics and researchers, but modes of thinking accessible to everyone.
Terms and Phrases
You might be asking yourself: what’s the difference between scientific reasoning and critical thinking? I think I’m rational – is that scientific? Below you’ll find real-world explanations of each and you may notice how they’re all linked!
- Scientific reasoning/thinking: a mode of thinking relevant to problem solving, decision making, communication, and learning. It involves thinking critically about the sources, content, and application of knowledge.
- Critical thinking: an umbrella term for thinking systematically. It involves a set of skills, such as the ability to decipher what information is relevant in a given situation, and even being able to describe the context of a given situation.
- Rationality: a mode of thinking that is generally based on logical consistency. However, there are many forms of rationality – such as bounded rationality and instrumental rationality. Interestingly, emotional and rational are often described as opposites, but modern thinking is that they are inextricably linked, and through practice, can work together.
- Skepticism: actively and consistently questioning information. This is an essential trait for scientific thinking. As a note of caution, “skepticism” has also been misused to describe someone who will not accept a theory, regardless of evidence (for example, a “climate change skeptic”).
- Logic: the main goal of logic or logical thinking is validity. Like rationality there are many forms of logic, and the way we define and exercise these forms of logic are debated by philosophers. But at its core, logic is about aligning our thinking with reality.
Scientific reasoning sounds fantastic! But is this really what a scientist does?
In many ways, yes.
This form of reasoning can also be described as a mental framework or toolkit that scientists apply to questions about nature. The main difference between thinking like a scientist and being a professional scientist lies in the work itself – questions that are formalized into experiments, often meticulously.
A lesser known aspect of the scientific profession is how critically it depends on consensus and collaboration. This is exemplified by the peer review process – where other scientists must review and edit a scientific paper before it can be published – and is also seen in the atmosphere of lab life.
The spirit of science is debate, discourse, and brainstorming. Science is not about being correct – or about fixed, absolute facts – but about working toward the best approximation of the truth, and modifying that when necessary. In this sense science is a hard-won labor of love, working over generations, with the ultimate reward of being closer to the truth than we were before.
How can we use scientific reasoning in everyday life?
Scientific reasoning can profoundly improve how we interact with everyday problems, especially with the scientific method in mind.
Here we’ll offer 2 example problems and demonstrate how the scientific method can be practiced and applied.
- Example Problem 1: my computer is making an odd hum, what is wrong with it?
- Example Problem 2: I read on Facebook that antibiotics are toxic, is this true?
For our purposes, the scientific method involves 5 steps: observe, hypothesize, experiment, analyze, and conclude.
In this step, we collect information that is already known. This could involve internet searches and/or speaking with experts.
This helps narrow down our issue, particularly by focusing on evidence-based information, not opinions. A good litmus test is to ask “is this information falsifiable?”.
If information is not able to be tested, or proven wrong, then it is likely opinion or speculation and outside the scientific method.
- Problem 1: after speaking with a reputable tech expert, we find out that the hum is likely related to the battery or the amount of programs we are running.
- Problem 2: after reading a handful of credible medical articles, we find out that antibiotics are not “toxic”, but some people have allergic reactions to certain types.
Propose an explanation for your observations. Essentially, we turn our questions into statements that we can test.
- Problem 1: we hypothesize that our computer battery is defective
- Problem 2: we hypothesize that we are allergic to a specific type of antibiotic
In this step we conduct a test (or sometimes multiple tests) to provide evidence that can support or oppose our hypotheses.
- Problem 1: we visit the tech expert’s shop. They use a specialized device to test our computer’s battery. Based on poor readout numbers, they recommend replacing it. We replace the battery and for a period of 2 weeks we use our computer the same way we did before: running the same number of programs, etc. During this time, we keep a list of any sounds it does or does not emit.
- Problem 2: we visit our physician. They administer a skin test of penicillin and a few other common antibiotics, such as azithromycin. In this test, they use a needle to apply a small amount of each antibiotic to a patch of skin on our arm. They then look for any visible reactions, such as redness.
Summarize the results of your experiment, ideally quantitatively (using numbers, measurements, statistics).
- Problem 1: we look at our notes from 2 weeks of using the computer with the new battery, where we specifically wrote down if any sounds were emitted. At no point did we note any unusual sounds.
- Problem 2: we look at our skin reactions to each antibiotic. Only the skin with penicillin was red and itchy.
This is where we summarize the results of our analyses. Scientific conclusions are not immutable facts, but our best approximation given the evidence.
In a scientific article different forms of reasoning can be used to build conclusions, but generally, a conclusion functions to shed light on the specific question our hypothesis posed.
Importantly, the scientific method is cyclical and the process can be repeated to validate (or invalidate) and refine our conclusions.
- Problem 1: we conclude that a defective battery was the most likely culprit of our computer hum. Importantly, we note that computer humming is not always caused by bad batteries, but in our specific case it was a major contributing factor.
- Problem 2: we conclude that we have an allergy to penicillin and update our emergency medical information so that doctors and nurses know to use a different type of antibiotic if necessary. Importantly, we note that antibiotics in general are not toxic, but that penicillin is specifically problematic for us.
Now you’ve used the scientific method in an everyday situation!
If you’re interested in learning more about the scientific method, check out some sources we’ve listed below.
Traits of a scientist
While scientific reasoning and the scientific method are well-outlined, here we describe less talked about features of scientific thinking.
Asking “why” and “how” is human nature. We find it pleasurable to understand, albeit to varying degrees person to person.
For a scientist, curiosity may just be their most impactful driving force. One might even think of a scientist as having a childlike, constant curiosity, just with a bigger vocabulary!
Scientists tend not to be the ego-driven know-it-alls that TV shows and movies will have you believe. In fact, updating theories when there is strong, new evidence is essential to science. So much so that many scientists welcome challenges and often remark about how little they actually know.
Scientists, however, are also known for their skepticism. The trick is to cultivate a balance between humility and skepticism.
While many scientists are quick witted and think fast on their feet, the ability to also take time to digest information is vital to clearer thinking.
Being overly reactive to new information is antithetical to science, particularly because you may overlook nuanced or alternative perspectives. Some concepts are quite complex, and taking your time with them allows you to mentally integrate them properly.
Love of Data
Information is the lifeblood of science. But what does that information look like?
Data! Data comes in many forms and lends itself to many different methods of analysis, but it is what moves a hypothesis toward a conclusion. Because of this, scientists develop a love for data – there are even researchers who experiment on data quality itself, with the hopes of improving how valid scientific findings are.
- A Glossary of Frequently Misused or Misunderstood Physics Terms and Concepts
- Understanding Science: An Overview
- Think Like a Scientist: How to Solve Everyday Problems
- How To Apply Occam’s Razor
- The 13 Types Data
- Fact Check and Snopes
- How Rational Are You?
“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” -Marie Curie
By Carrisa Cocuzza, PhD candidate