Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Explaining the importance of the scientific method

The first time I ever came into contact with the Skeptics Community was when I attended the talk of my very good friend Doctor Tom Williamson in Leeds (please check out his excellent blog at www.skepticcanary.com). His talk was entitled ‘The Scientific Method – Uses and Abuses’; and provided excellent explanations of various pieces of scientific jargon and some very clear examples of how the Scientific Method has been correctly and incorrectly used.

I was extremely happy to see this talk, because for my money the Scientific Method is one of the great accomplishments of the human mind. As a result I made a conscious effort to come up with as clear and concise a way as I possibly could for explaining both the method and its importance to others, whether in discussion or debate.

The method I came up with was to point out that there are essentially two approaches to exploring and guiding ourselves through the reality in which we find ourselves. The first is that we can base judgements on no evidence, or ‘on faith’; and the second approach is to actually use evidence as a foundation for all our thoughts, opinions, theories etc.

What the Scientific Method has been developed for is quite simple – to produce the highest quality of evidence possible, on the basis of current human understanding; and that is, again to the best of our current understanding, what it does. The evidence to support this claim comes from the phenomenal success rate of accurate future predictions that have been made; based on scientific evidence, compared to any other attempts to make such predictions.

This method of explanation has worked suitably well for me so far, but there is one thing that puzzles me; and that is why have I never come across anyone else referring directly to the quality of evidence produced by scientific research. I’m not making this point from a position of considering my own explanation to be superior to what has gone before; rather I am genuinely concerned that I might be missing something obvious, which is common knowledge but that I have somehow managed to keep on missing.

I can see that there are various reasons as to why this approach might be a bad idea. For instance, the use of an absolute statement (‘science DOES produce the highest quality evidence as far as we understand’) could be setting yourself up for a rather large fall, especially if you find yourself not having the relevant evidence on a particular topic to hand! It would seem to me to be rather embarrassing to find myself in conversation uttering something along the lines of, “Well Science has produced the highest quality evidence with regards to this matter…but unfortunately I don’t know what it is!”

However, what concerns me more is another practical problem with using such a bold factual claim, which is that it might actually seem rather arrogant. From my own personal experience the perceived arrogance of science and scientists is one of the two main objections that people have expressed to me as to why they hold a negative view of the subject. This strikes me as yet another case of evaluation by what has been said being based on who has spoken and not an attempt to evaluate the words themselves (One of the most common, and in my view, annoying of all human traits). Bearing that point in mind though, I presume I have to remember one of the lines from my own Skeptics talk, namely, “Perception is a two-way process”. In other words it doesn’t matter what I might know and understand compared to others, that doesn’t mean that from a practical point of view, others will simply change, or are in any way obliged to change, their negative opinions about science.

Therefore, regardless of what I think about the validity of my explanation, I may be able to persuade more people of science’s importance simply by not including a statement that could be perceived as being so overtly arrogant. I’m sure that my positive energy levels and natural enthusiasm will try and dismiss this as pure fiction, but only time will tell! However, I have only used my explanation in discussion with others and never in a debate. I have a feeling that could make a difference and I will be interested to find out what happens in this regard in the future.

So, what, if anything, am I missing? Do the points I have mentioned above hit the nail on the head, but I just haven’t realised until now? Or, am I missing something else entirely?  I would be very grateful to hear others views; especially those from people who have had greater experience of communicating the scientific method; or using scientific evidence in any kind of debate/argument against non-scientific evidence than I have.

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