Recent media headlines proclaiming that kale is “scientifically proven” to be healthy are often accompanied by claims about how much research confirms its health benefits.
However, this popular perception of science as an unquestionable source of knowledge is inaccurate.
Science does not aim to prove that which is already known, but rather investigates phenomena by asking meaningful questions with well-defined rules. The way we apply the scientific method depends on what conclusions we want to reach.
When applied properly, the scientific approach can dispel long-standing misconceptions, reveal new insights into our universe, and help find effective solutions to important problems.
But when it goes too far, it can threaten our understanding of reality itself. This overreach of science has been referred to as scientism — the excessive use of the term “science” to describe everything.
Scientific skepticism comes from a desire to know the truth more thoroughly. It challenges easy answers in favor of searching for nuanced effects or no clear answer at all.
It encourages us to ask why things work like they do instead of assuming that there must be a reason that they do. By questioning the status quo, you are betting against the established order of things.
This article will explore the nuances of the word “research” and some potential pitfalls in interpreting findings. While studies count as research, not every study worth talking about is scientifically rigorous.
There are many different types of science
Many people get mixed up when it comes to what constitutes “science.” Some feel that only studies with an academic degree or doctorate can be considered scientific, while others believe all experiments and observations make something scientific.
Actually, there is no hard and fast rule about defining what counts as scientific research. What matters most is whether the results of the experiment/observation have proof in them that proves their hypothesis correct or not.
It makes no difference if the experiment was conducted at a university or outside of school, nor does it matter if the person conducting the experiment has a PhD or not. All successful investigations include analysis and reasoning to prove that their hypotheses are accurate.
Science is constantly changing
Over the past few centuries, science has gone through many different phases. Some theories are very popular now, but that doesn’t make them any better than older, less popular ones. For example, before Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, people believed that God created everything with no explanation needed.
After Darwin’s Theory was accepted, though, people started questioning this idea. They argued that his theory didn’t seem possible because there were too many differences between species.
For instance, according to evolution, animals like monkeys should be related to cats and dogs, not each other!
However, scientists find lots of similarities between animal groups, which prove their theory. These similarities show that humans share a common ancestor who lived billions of years ago. This proves that genetic changes occur slowly over a long time frame.
Another challenge for those who believe in creationism is explaining why some organisms look more similar to others than they do to each other. For instance, how could an octopus be descended from a fish?
These questions can all be answered by looking at the parts of the organism and how they relate to each other. Let me repeat that: it’s not enough just to compare one part to another. You have to understand how every part fits into the whole picture.
Science is based on evidence
We now live in an information era, where access to knowledge is no longer limited to those who can afford to spend time studying at universities or professional training facilities. With every passing minute, we are exposed to more and more information than ever before!
With this overabundance of data comes a challenge for most people: how do you know which sources are trustworthy?
It’s very easy for someone with an agenda to create misleading studies that seem impressive. Or for there to be contradictions among several sources that describe the same thing!
As humans, we are wired to trust things that look authentic and proven, so it is hard for us to evaluate some types of “evidence.”
That is why it is important to assess the scientific quality of any research you read or believe to be true.
By using sound logic and reasoning, as well as the input of other experts, you can determine whether something is scientifically valid or not.
Science is based on experiments
Doing science comes down to experimenting with things- material, processes, or ideas. Scientists experiment with and examine relationships between elements and materials, strategies and concepts, and people and behaviors.
Based on your experience as a scientist and the way you learn, it’s easy to assume that all scientific studies are conducted using strictly controlled environments and conditions. This isn’t always the case!
As we know, not every study is designed like a typical experimental setup. Some investigations simply ask questions and then analyze the answers to determine if there is a correlation (or lack thereof) between two variables. These types of studies aren’t limited to college research labs either; they occur in businesses, government agencies, and even within families.
Such observational studies can be just as valid as those conducted under more rigorous guidelines if used properly.
Science is based on analysis
What we now call science was originated some 5,000 years ago in Asia when people started experimenting with natural phenomena to determine how they work. Before that there were no scientific studies of nature.
People would ask questions about what causes rain or why some trees grow faster than others, but such investigations were not systematic and did not have defined results. It was just intuitive observation and experimentation.
With the development of literacy and mathematics, it became possible to record observations more systematically and logically, which led to the first experiments for establishing cause-and-effect rules. These are called causal hypotheses.
For example, if you drop a stone into water, then the explosion as the water breaks up and the ringing of the glass as it vibrates due to the shock wave are both caused by the falling object. So, dropping a rock into a pool will show you that theory!
Such reasoning and testing is one important aspect of science, because it requires careful thinking and execution. Without these, scientists can’t proceed very far.
Science is based on consensus
There are two main components that make up science. These are the research studies that researchers perform to determine if a theory or hypothesis is correct, and how scientists gather and weigh evidence to prove their theories.
The first component is what we refer to as empirical testing. This comes down to doing an experiment and seeing whether the results of the experiment confirm the hypotheses set forth in the test. For example, let’s say you want to know why people like eating chicken nuggets. You could do an experiment where you give a few people some chicken nugget snacks and watch to see who eats them and how many they eat.
This would be an example of an indirect study because it does not directly investigate whether people like chicken nuggets, but it looks at whether someone likes eating something and how much they consume of a product. By analyzing these factors, though, you can arrive at a conclusion about whether people enjoy chicken nuggets.
Directly investigating this theory would be going into a restaurant with lots of chicken nugget dishes and measuring how many people eat them and how hungry they seem after eating them. While this is considered a more rigorous way to approach studying human behavior, it isn’t practical unless you already have access to a restaurant that serves chicken nuggets.
Researching direct experiments is called empiricism — coming together with data and proof to support a claim.
Science is based on cooperation
A lot of people get science confused with mathematics, which is not wrong, but only part of it. Mathematics is great at logical reasoning and systems that make sense to you, but science goes beyond that.
Science explores how things are connected to each other in space and time, and everything we know comes from studying nature and experimenting with control groups. This means gathering up some materials or doing an experiment, comparing what happens without the intervention to what does when they’re present, and then analyzing the results.
If someone says their diet cured them of cancer, for example, we would do controlled studies to see if eating that way helped us diagnose with cancer or not. And if it did help, we would figure out why? Was it because they were more likely to take good care of themselves, or was it because they knew about the health benefits of certain foods?
By understanding how things work, we can apply this knowledge to create new products, find new uses for old ones, and even improve upon the current designs where possible.
Science is based on questioning
The way we do scientific research involves asking questions, creating hypotheses, conducting experiments to determine if your hypothesis proves correct or not, and then coming up with conclusions based on the results of these experiments.
Research that seems very advanced has been building on this process for years. Technology like smartphones and computers are built around this process!
So how did we get here?
A few hundred thousand years ago, ancient humans used systematic observation and experimentation to identify useful plants and minerals in their surroundings and to learn about them. They would experiment by eating a certain plant part or powder and seeing what effects it had on their body.
This was the beginning of observational science where you use your senses to gather information and test whether that information agrees or disagrees with a theory. For example, when someone claims that chocolate helps reduce hunger, you can test that claim by giving some people a piece of chocolate and measuring their appetite.
Another type of experimental science is cause-and-effect testing. This comes from observing natural occurrences such as rain falling and trees growing. You can create an environment without water or food, put something in to see what happens, and compare those things with normal conditions.
These two types of experiments have led us down the path to doing actual research.
At first, no one really organized all of this information into theories or rules. People just experimented, observed, discussed, and shared knowledge they had.