The Real Core of the Scientific Method and Why We Should Trust It

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Apropos of much in our world today, I have been rereading some of the better philosophy of science lately, and some of the critiques of the idea that there is a universally valid “scientific method.” I have nothing to really say to those whose resistance to the methods and conclusions of science comes from a deep-seated place where faith – of which ultimately identity and solidarity figure prominently – now requires them to reject it. My purpose lies elsewhere today.

But to those who are inundated daily with skepticism about complex issues such as climate change, vaccination, energy production, or food safety, and honestly wonder what the “truth” is….please know this. There is no such thing as a single “scientific method.” The fact that investigating climate change, for example, does not look like the precise methods of particle physics or the amazing marriage of biochemistry and algorithms in modern genomics, does not make it a lesser science, it merely reflects the difficulty of data collection on the most massive scales, the impossibility of precise modeling on scales ranging several orders of magnitude, and the inherent randomness of the phenomena.

This does not mean that science does not work, however. Science, and every honest inquiry we humans undertake, involves a simple principle:

Do not continue to bullshit yourself and others that you are correct when there is a reason to suspect that you might be wrong. Let your ego lie in the knowledge that you work hard to be right, not the conviction that you are right. If most people – not even everyone! – does this, we move our knowledge forward, and make better decisions for ourselves, and our descendants.

From this, we have gone from migrating out of Africa, to measuring the circumference of the earth by measuring shadows, to understanding the true place of our world in the universe, to understanding the evolution of life on our world, to preventing disease, to building technologies that might allow us to mitigate the effects of our present problems.

But it works only if we change what makes us feel good – our “reward structure.” We have to value our personal contributions in terms of making good decisions rather than “our team winning.” Tribalism and individualism lead nowhere on the long term. The economics of self-interest are tragically incomplete and thus, wrong and self-limiting.

Nature is not merely “red in tooth and claw.” You would not exist if competition were the only important value. The rich panoply of evolutionary history is abundant testament to this. Cooperation and altruism are not foolish, they are fundamental to evolution and success.