I love science. There are few methods of understanding dearer to my heart than the scientific method – it has been responsible for some of the most amazing advances and discoveries in human history, and I look forward to what it has to contribute to us in the future.
That said, we should resist labeling anyone who questions a scientific idea “anti-science.” “Anti-science” is not a scientific term but a political one. So what, then, does it mean to be “anti-science?”
To investigate why labeling people who express skepticism “anti-science” is problematic, it is necessary to start with a few definitions: the scientific method and the difference between scientific hypotheses, theories and laws.
The Scientific Method
I define the scientific method as the following process:
1. Formulation of a question
2. Hypothesis – a guess based on prior knowledge
3. Prediction – determining the logical outcome of the hypothesis
4. Testing – usually an experiment, but always an investigation about whether the real world is in accordance with the hypothesis
5. Analysis – determining the results of the testing and deciding what steps to take next
6. Retesting – repeat steps 1-5 over and over again until you keep coming to the same conclusion almost every time
Scientific Hypotheses, Theories and Laws
Hypotheses, theories and laws are not interchangeable, and each one does not possess the same level of proof.
Hypothesis: An educated guess based on observation. (e.g. If you notice that your iPhone goes missing every time your little cousin comes to visit, you might hypothesize that your cousin steals your iPhone.)
Theory: The summary of a hypothesis or set of hypotheses that have been repeatedly tested and supported (e.g. Darwin’s theory of evolution.)
Law: The generalization of a large body of observations that appears to always be true – as of right now, there are no laws with exceptions (e.g. Newton’s Law of Gravity or the Laws of Thermodynamics.)
The Concept of “Anti-Science”
Occasionally, scientists will formulate hypotheses and theories, and other scientists, economists, and people generally will question them. The questioners then become labeled “anti-science” because “the evidence is all there – how can they not agree? If they disagree, they must simply hate science.”
The labelers believe that the questioners are anti-science because, to them, the hypotheses and theories they have formed are so self-evidently true that the questioners might as well be trying to refute laws. For example, scientists will come up with a theory and say that questioners of their theory are akin to questioners of gravity.
Hypotheses and theories are not law. It is one thing to question whether climate simulation models are sufficiently accurate at predicting future weather events and another thing to question the existence of gravity. The models constitute a theory, and gravity constitutes a law. Remember that there are no exceptions to laws and that laws cannot be disproven. Theories, on the other hand, can always be countered by competing theories.
Why the Label Itself is Anti-Scientific
Nothing is more truly anti-science than labeling anyone who doesn’t agree with your hypothesis or theory a pariah. Science is at its best when scientists are constantly questioning and testing each others’ claims. The more rigorous this process of questioning and testing is, the closer our science comes to being true. Science is much better for the existence of competing theories because, without them, we would never approach the middle ground where laws usually lie.
If we really care about science, we ought to be encouraging questioning of methodology, data, and experimental processes, not demonizing it.