two lego scientists

Science in the real world

Science is logical and objective – mostly. But let’s get real…

Hypothesis–test–revise is an idealised view of science. Like learning to drive, we all know what we should do, but after our test do we all drive perfectly?

Scientists are human too. The majority are honest, conscientious, hard-working and fair. Some, a tiny minority, cheat: they make things up, or fudge figures.

South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk was briefly lauded for his apparent creation of human embryonic stem cells by cloning. In 2006, he was charged with embezzlement and bioethics violations after it emerged he had faked his results.

Remarkable work on simple ‘acid bath’ methods to reprogramme adult cells into stem cells, published in 2014, has also been called into question, leading to retractions, official investigations, resignations and even suicide.

Alongside outright fraud, scientists also tend to be attached to their own theories. They can be tempted to ignore a bit of data that doesn’t fit. Occasionally, commercial interests may, directly or indirectly, cloud their judgement.

There is always a natural desire to be proved right, and perhaps a tendency to look for evidence that supports a theory, rather than contradicts it. Sometimes, believe it or not, scientists make mistakes.

Should we disregard everything scientists say? Is all scientific knowledge tainted? In fact, unlike many other human activities, science has many safety checks.

Illustrations showing the various checks that the scientific process has
  1. Peer review: Scrutiny of research by other experts before findings are published.
  2. Practical information: If a theory is correct, there may be ways to apply it practically. So quantum theory may be strange – but it has given us transistors, and they all work. Conversely, the theories of inheritance developed by Trofim Lysenko in the Soviet Union were politically popular but proved to be a catastrophic failure in plant breeding programmes.
  3. Whistle-blowing: If researchers suspect foul play, they can raise their concerns with authorities.
  4. Regulation: Scientists are not free to do whatever they choose. There are many forms of regulation that they must abide by – from their employers (e.g. universities) to ethical committees and national laws if, for example, they plan to use animals in their research.
  5. Prediction: More fundamentally, a good scientific theory makes predictions. If the theory is true, then it will have other consequences. This brings us on to…
  6. Objectivity: Experiments should be objective – another scientist should be able to carry out the same research in the same way and get the same findings. Which leads to…
  7. Replication: It’s usually not enough for one group of scientists to report findings. Findings are often treated with caution, particularly if they were unexpected, until a second group has found the same thing.
  8. Testability: A good scientific theory is testable. The results of experiments may support the theory, lead to its revision or overthrow it completely. If it cannot be tested, it is of little use in science.
Credit:

Illustrations © Glen McBeth

 

Scientists can be maddeningly cautious. But certainty only comes when ‘new’ science has stood the test of time. At early stages, uncertainty is the rule.

Lead image:

BRICK 101/Flickr CC BY NC

References

Questions for discussion

  • What do you think the key processes in science are?
  • What are the strengths of the scientific approach? And its weaknesses?

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Evolution’ in January 2007 and reviewed and updated in December 2014.

Topics:
Statistics and maths, Careers
Issue:
Evolution
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development