Lacking the Scientific Method

Contributed by Muhammad Bashir Baloch

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As we observe everything we have in this modern world attributes to science in one form or the other. Science may be just a word for an ordinary man, but for a scientist it is a very comprehensive term, and a world in itself. Science is the branch of knowledge that is based on observations and then logically proceeding with a well defined scientific method. Richard Feynman explained in his lecture series at Cornell University that an ultimate test that a theory has to pass is observation and experiment. He said this: “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

Every idea goes through the same process of scrutiny and skepticism in science irrespective of who is presenting it. So called tags, awards and mass following doesn’t matter. Even Einstein could be wrong if his theory does not agree with experiment and empirical reasoning. Most important thing is to know how scientific method works. We can memorize all the facts of science and even quantum mechanics but they are of no use unless we know the real scientific method. Einstein famously said that any fool can know, the point is to understand.

One visible difference between knowing and understanding can be noticed by looking at world universities. All countries, including our own has universities and school system. There are hundreds of graduates of each subject being produced by them. For instance, I usually ponder that on average there are 36 toppers here in Punjab boards. They are assumed to be the cream of the country, but the productive output seems almost nonexistent. This phenomenon is somehow global. All the universities produce graduates each year, but a tiny fraction of them truly knows their subject and do pursue research in it. Otherwise, most of them fall in the category whom Einstein called fools, as they only know things and do not understand.

I personally consider the genuine scientists as rebels who do not rely only on what books say and what exams test. Instead, they have a wider spectrum of rational inquiry. On the other hand, if you visit a science class or talk to a group of students about science, you may find a huge gap between their thinking and scientific method. Let me try to explain with one common example of Indian subcontinent. Some of the students ask for scientific explanation for “Nazar Lagna” (Evil Eye), which deals in a myth of a curse believed to be cast by an evil glare. Many cultures believe that receiving the evil eye will cause misfortune or injury. Now it is just a statement having its origin in some centuries old belief. The important rule in science is that you first have to ask good and right questions in the first place, instead of assuming superstitions as facts. Every theory, every idea we now know is the product of some unanswered questions. Scientists have many such questions and their task is to explain answers to such questions. Now we can easily see that nazaar lagna doesn’t qualify as a scientific unanswered question because it is just a myth. To become a good scientist you need to know what to ask and what not to.

Once talking about the importance of scientific method renowned American theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate David Gross said: “The greatest invention of science is scientific method itself.”

There is an unfortunate trend that we often witness in under developed and developing countries that students and teachers are prone to pseudoscience.. For instance, one may observe how people try to justify their religious faith and spiritual doctrine by using findings of science. They introduce terms like Islamic Science, Hindu Science and so on. A little inquiry reveals that they themselves don’t know much about science and scientific method, and they just coin these terms assuming that they’re proving how their faith is compatible with modern world. Similarly, there are people who altogether reject science and modern knowledge and remain attached with their superstitions and irrational believes.

I often encounter such people who seek my attention towards the fact that science cannot prove the centuries old miracles of their faith. What they try to prove is that science is still far behind their faith, and that science could be defied by miracles. Please hold on and consider that science has no relation with one’s religious faith and primate superstitions, and this is not the job of science to accept their claims by contradicting its own well defined scientific of inquiry.

Not so long ago, I was sitting with a Quaid-e-Azam university graduate. He asked if scientists claim to revolutionize the world, why cannot they make a rocket that could move with speed higher than the speed of light. I responded him that scientists know, from Einstein’s theory of special relativity, that nothing can move with a speed higher than the speed of light; then why would they attempt to make such a rocket? Scientists do not do new things rather they just explain nature on the basis of a scientific method, and follow where the reasoning leads. Otherwise, there are many questions that one can randomly ask but they don’t seem to make sense. For example: what is the color of jealousy? It may seem good grammatically or poetically, but it has nothing to do with science.

Once talking about the importance of scientific method renowned American theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate David Gross said: “The greatest invention of science is scientific method itself.” Similarly, once Richard Feynman was asked on BBC: “why do like poles of magnet repel each other?” Feynman replied what did he mean by why, and the interviewer looked confused. Then Feynman explained to him that not all whys make sense; mostly we intend to ask how when we say why. Feynman also mentioned that people ask him if he’s looking for the ultimate unified theory? He reflected that he didn’t know what they meant by ultimate theory; he’s just exploring the nature and if as a result that so called ultimate theory came, then that’s okay.

Scientific method is an evidence-based method for investigating truth and acquiring knowledge. We teach our students what science says, but most of times they don’t have a clue from where and how does this information come. This is the scientific method that explains how science actually works, how to know what makes sense and what does not make sense.  Scientific method encodes answer to all these questions. Students, as well as teachers shouldn’t undermine the importance of this topic and better properly understand it. I think those who want to be professional scientists must read at least one book explaining what science is and what scientific method is. I would like to recommend “The Character of Physical Law” by Richard Feynman. If we want to avoid pseudo science and want to know what makes sense, we need to just learn and follow scientific method.

About the Author:

The writer is doing F.Sc (Pre-Engineering). He has a deep enthusiasm for physics and mathematics. He is also a member of Science Talent Farming Scheme (STFS) of Pakistan science foundation (PSF).

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