The Scientific Method

There's a saying that there are no cultural relativists at thirty thousand feet. The laws of aerodynamics work regardless of political or social prejudices, and they are indisputably true. Yes, you can discuss to what extent they are an approximation, what are their limits of validity, do they take into account such niceties as quantum entanglement or unified field theory (of course they don't). But the most basic scientific concept that is clearly and disturbingly missing from today's social and political discourse is the concept that some questions have correct and clear answers. Such questions can be called "scientific" and their answers represent truth. Scientific questions are not easy to ask. Their answers can be verified by experiment or observation, and they can be used to improve your life, create jobs and technologies, save the planet. You don't need pollsters or randomized trials to determine if a parachute works. You need an understanding of the facts of aerodynamics and the methodology to do experiments.

Science's main goal is to find the answers to questions. And the rate of advance of science is determined by how well we can ask sharp, scientific questions, not by the rate at which we answer them. In the field of science with which I identify, condensed matter physics, important new discoveries and new questions arise on the scale of about once every five years. They are mostly answered and worked through on a time scale much less than that. Science is also driven by luck and serendipitous discovery. That can also be amplified by asking good questions. For example, the evolutionary biologist Carl Woese discovered a third domain of life by asking how to map out the history of life using molecular sequences of RNA rather than fossils and superficial appearances of organisms. The widely publicized ennui of fundamental physics is a result of the failure to find a sharp scientific question.

It ought to be more widely known that the truth is indeed out there, but only if one knows how to ask sharp and good questions. This is the unifying aspect of the scientific method and perhaps its most enduring contribution.