Picture it. 7:00 AM. You’ve just woken up, and not a single bone in your body is on board with getting out of bed. Your figurative zombie shell of a body plops one foot onto the floor, then two. You rise, stretch, yawn, and drag your feet toward the kitchen.
You fill your carafe with water and pour it into your coffee machine. Four scoops of medium-dark roast Columbian coffee later, you press “brew”.
You press the button again, but harder this time, with no success. After a brief panic, you check to see if the machine is plugged in. It’s not. You plug in the machine and press “brew” a second time. IT’S ALIVE! After a brief victory dance in the kitchen, you retreat to your morning hygenic rituals as the smells of coffee and success fill your home.
That, my friends, is science.
“What!? How!? That’s just plugging in a coffee pot! You’re full of crap because science is hard, and I do that sort of thing all the time!”
That is very nearly correct, pal. That was science, and you do science all the time. However, you’re wrong about it being hard.
Our friend, The Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, defines science as “knowledge covering general truths of the operation of general laws, esp. as obtained and tested through scientific method [and] concerned with the physical world.”
Key words here: Scientific Method.
Depending on your source, the scientific method has between five and seven interweaving steps consisting mostly of the following:
- Ask A Question
- Do Background Research
- Construct a Hypothesis
- Test With an Experiment
- Analyze Data and Draw Conclusions
- Communicate Results
This sounds like a lot, but the awesome thing is that we can connect each of these steps back to our coffee example.
- Ask A Question. Typically, this step consists of an impressively uniform question: “I wonder…?” In this case, the question was “I wonder why my coffee maker isn’t working?”
- Do Background Research. Okay, we kinda skipped this step in the example, but doesn’t it seem pretty easy for us to google “coffee pot not turn on” before we actually do some troubleshooting? Thought so ;). Of course, this step would be perfect for seeing if someone else already answered our question and published their results. No one wants to do a job that’s already been done, assuming the person that did said job subjected their work to peer review which we will talk about later.
- Construct a Hypothesis. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenominon or an observation. For it to be a scientific hypothesis, it must be testable. Say that three times. Testable testable testable. Meaning you can test it. In our coffee example, there are two testable hypotheses presented. The first testable hypothesis is that the first “brew” button push was not hard enough.
- Test With an Experiment. One could go on an entire spiel about the intricacies of experimental design, but for our purposes, pushing a button is sufficient. To test the first hypothesis, you pushed the “brew” button a second time with no success. In this case, you could reject the hypothesis that your first button push wasn’t substantial enough. This leads to a whole other “back to the drawing board” step of the scientific method that is conditional, and that is why I didn’t include it in the above master list. Naturally, when one idea doesn’t work to solve a problem, you try another. This is exactly what occured in our morning scenario. You constructed a SECOND hypothesis that was something along the lines of: “maybe the coffee maker is unplugged.” You then tested said hypothesis by looking behind the coffee maker to determine the plugged-in status of the machine.
- Analyze Data and Draw Conclusions. You notice that the coffee maker is unplugged. You plug in the machine and push the “brew” button resulting in a perfectly functional coffee pot. One could safely draw the conclusion based on the data aqcuired from the experiment designed to test your hypothesis (doesn’t that sound fancy!) that the machine was not working because it was unplugged.
That’s it! That’s science, and it happens every minute of every day accross the globe. Everyone can follow the scientific method regardless of level of intelligence, age, economic status, race, sex, or religion. Everyone is a scientist.
“But wait! Aren’t you forgetting step 6?”
No, amigo, I am not forgetting step 6.
Step 6 is special: Communicate Results. I get genuinely emotional talking about step 6, so bear with me. One of the things that I love the most about science is that not only do we get to ask all kinds of amazing questions, but we get to ANSWER them and create more quesions. We get to contribute to the collective knowledge of mankind about the natural world by communicating our results.
Humans have a long and dynamic history with step 6 that I imagine started as something along the lines of “No eat red berry. Make sick.”
Back to our coffee maker example. How many times have you read to “make sure it’s plugged in” when troubleshooting the function of any applience? It’s a common early step, and we know this because so many people have communicated thier results. Communicating your results can be as simple as telling a friend about your morning coffee fiasco. It can even be posting a status or a selfie with your thankfully not broken coffee pot. What good is knowledge that can benifit everyone if you keep it to yourself? Knowing which berries are poisonous and watching all your friends eat them anyway is a real jerk move.
We take so much of the knowledge that we have for granted, but the important thing about science is that it builds and grows. We only know that the solar system is heliocentric because Copernicus did step 6. We have the Germ Theory of Disease because Anthenasius Kircher and Anton van Leeuwenhoek saw microorganisms with their very EYES and told someone about it. Without Copernicus, mankind might have never set foot on the moon. Without Kircher and Leeuwenhoek, we might still be blaming diseases like malaria and smallpox on evil spirits and the sins of our great great grandparents.
The scientific method is such a fundamental and universal tool for collecting knowledge, and honestly and ethically communicating collected knowledge helps to establish a foundation from which future scientists (not excluding you) can build. Every time we ask a question, get an answer, and report said answer, we are creating a foothold for the next group of knowledge seekers to reach to heights that we now could only imagine. Science is not this unattainable, elitist field. It’s done every single day in the smallest and largest of ways by everything that thinks thoughts.