The scientific method has long been held the hallmark of experimentation in the natural world. Asking a question, formulating and testing hypotheses then collecting and interpreting data allows us to draw educated conclusions about phenomena from ant ecology to particle physics to neurogenesis. But there’s an uncertainty in the use of the scientific method: it’s unable to claim something as definitely true. Only after many repeated studies that have the same outcome is something generally accepted in the scientific community—and even then, statistical uncertainty can limit the amount of confidence we may have.
Uncertainty in the scientific method is a double-edged sword. Science employs statistics, which tell us our degree of certainty with our results, and statistics give us terms like “highly probable” and “very likely” to describe them. What they don’t give us is the authority to claim something as unabatingly true—to stamp out alternative hypotheses for good. Well-conducted science is not going to try to sell a conclusion that is only half-supported by statistics; it will not try to convince you of a “somewhat likely” outcome. Nearly all studies come to the conclusion that further research needs to be conducted.
Because of this inability to deem something as unyieldingly true, basing policy off of science is, to some extent, a gamble. Politicians readily use this uncertainty to their advantage, for instance, when it comes to maintaining the status quo on climate policy. That small percentage of uncertainty is used as leverage against climate scientists and is further bolstered when armed with funding from corporations benefitting from oil and natural gas profits. Here, this uncertainty inherent in the scientific method becomes a weapon of doubt, stifling dissenting voices that hold knowledge critical for informed policy making.
We need a discourse on the intersection of science and politics. While science for the sake of knowledge is essential, science’s role in informing policy is increasingly relevant in an age where our future is dependent on our interactions with our environment and one another. For too long scientists have, as a whole, remained quiet. For many, activism is not a natural inclination. There has been deep-seated reluctance in the scientific community to speak out in politics for fear of controversy and losing research funding. But scientists in increasing numbers are standing up and will gather alongside concerned citizens at the Portland March for Science this Saturday, just one of the 500 satellite marches around the world.
Understanding that the scientific method is not political, but that the applications of the knowledge it produces are absolutely political, is where we must begin. It is all too easy for knowledge to remain stifled within educated circles, for scientists to hide in their labs and for political and scientific spheres to exist independent of one another. Science plays a vital role in our democracy, and the relationship between science and democracy is under threat. It’s time that scientists speak for themselves against the noise of politicians who wish to speak for them.
The Bowdoin community is marching for research, real facts and evidence-based policy making. Our identity in the larger Brunswick and Maine communities connects us to relevant issues that affect Maine’s changing coast, biomedical research, fishing industries and the conservation of forests and rivers. We must continue to understand the scientific method and support doing basic science, because access is the first step. We must invest in science rather than slashing budgets for research that actually serves our citizens. We must hold our leaders to the highest standards of honesty and integrity and not accept the censoring of science. We demand inclusivity and diversity of voices and minds for a fairer and more democratic science that serves not just a select few.
The power of science comes from the repetition of trials, large sample sizes and the continual building off of past knowledge. It comes from innovation and its ability to evolve but also from its stability and resistance to oscillation. It forces us to consider and test for alternative hypotheses to explain phenomena—a practice not limited to science, but necessary for arriving at the truth. We need to trust the scientific method, even when it produces results that don’t align with our worldview. Selective belief of only some well-conducted science defeats the purpose. This is not to say that we shouldn’t question facts with which we are presented, but when given the choice between facts grounded in statistical significance and those hanging by unbacked yet powerful rhetoric, we must opt for the former in the name of justice and the common good.
Zoe Wood is a member of the Class of 2018.