Science dominates the world today. The fact that technology is almost always viewed as either evil incarnate or humanity’s savior is proof of that. But there is a fatal flaw with leaning on science’s gift to us, technology — most laymen don’t understand what good science is. Science cannot prove anything without a doubt, and it is through rigorous review of scientific research and through skepticism of new discoveries, that we better explain how our world is governed.

An amusing recent example of not understanding science comes from the Large Hadron Collider located in Switzerland. This 26-kilometer circumference ring contains a particle accelerator capable of (hopefully) finding the theorized but not as of yet detected Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle that in theory gives matter mass. This, of course, bored the public. After all, it’s not exactly the kind of thing that’s very tangible to someone not interested in the subject. The public was excited about the suggestion by scientists that the particle accelerator could form black holes of an infinitesimal size.

The panic that followed was an embarrassing show of ignorance. Instead of asking what threat these black holes posed, they assumed it must be the stereotypical giant vortex of death you might find in a bad sci-fi movie. According to a worldnews.com.au article, a girl in India watching her local station warn of this possible global catastrophe drank insecticide rather than risk being around for the world to end (Teen commits suicide after ‘end of world’ reports, 11/11/2008). Scientists from the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the particle physics laboratory that runs the accelerator, tried to explain the nature of what was really at stake.

So what of those horrific black holes? They are so small, they would not even be able to suck in a few molecules of air before evaporating into nothing. Even more comically, the science that says it could happen at the LHC also supports the idea that similar black holes can and probably already do form and then disappear randomly in our atmosphere. What the scientists couldn’t do to assuage tinfoil-hatted naysayers was assure that there was zero risk of the LHC destroying the Earth.

This is where people need to better understand science and scientific theory. A theory in science is an explanation, with facts supporting its validity through observation. Theories aren’t set in stone, nor can they ever be, because scientific developments are fundamentally self-critical and skeptical. Scientists in good conscience can never say a giant vortex of death cannot possibly form, because there is a slight chance that it can. Then again, it is possible the next time you go swimming you’ll be struck by lightning during a shark attack, even in a lake.

Those who mock natural selection as only being theory fail to realize the inherent fluidity and uncertainty of science. Germ theory and the cell theory are just theories as well, still vulnerable to being found incomplete or perhaps even incorrect. All three theories have evolved, so to speak, over decades into more refined forms that can broadly explain the natural world. They are stronger than any other theories because they are scrutinized so closely and are backed up by experimental evidence and observation that other theories do not have. Theories almost always change and develop, but often they remain useful to predict natural phenomena.

In experimentation, scientists hope to prove their own work correct. But more is often learned in the mistakes scientists make, or in accidentally proving an exception to the accepted theory. Exceptions are sometimes due to experimental error, but they sometimes show flaws that are valuable to scientists looking to perfect their work. All science has bias, such as confirmation bias by narrow-minded but driven researchers, but through peer review of work and independent confirmation of experimental results we can filter out biased observations.

In the false name of science, peddlers of useless items like magnetic bandages and those who would undermine scientific advancement to suit political or religious beliefs use unscientific arguments to “prove” their claims. It is important for us to be vigilant as a society to claims and movements founded on outrageous beliefs or faulty evidence. Part of this takes better understanding of what it means to be scientific. Caution and skepticism mean more in the long run than any idea that hasn’t been — or is unable to be — tested.

Ben Caleca can be reached at calecab@umich.edu.

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