How Science Works in Practice

The portrayal of science in mass media is often limited to caricatures and anecdotes about scientists, and unfortunately this has developed a warped perception among the general public that is not easy to dispel.

Our idea of a scientist ranges from evil geniuses like Dr. Frankenstein who construct aberrations in their laboratories, to likable eccentric geeks who make time machines in their garage. To add to the confusion, the actual process of scientific discovery is often completely neglected in these presentations. Amazing discoveries seem to pop out of nowhere and our weird and interesting scientist are guided by a spark of genius that does away with any need for rigorous research, experimentation and trial. As unfortunate as it is that the general public has only a limited understanding of science, it is downright tragic that this incomprehension extends to the corridors of global power. Our politicians and policy makers, for the most part, are just as clueless about the scientific method as is the majority of their electorate. Witness the ongoing debates about climate change and the inaction of global administrations on the matter.

Not only is the science of climate change completely misunderstood, but there is even a sizable grouping of intelligent and educated policy makers who question the validity of the findings presented by scientists. We have individuals stating that they “…don’t believe in climate change”, inadvertently confusing faith and belief with scientific observation. Science does not depend on faith or belief and stands in a completely different and elevated sphere of human understanding. This is not to say that science is in any way superior to religion; rather, I am drawing the point that they are two completely different beasts.

The understanding of how science works is particularly pertinent in the health and wellness ecosystem. The wellness industry and the healthcare industry are both concerned with our wellbeing and health, and are built on offering products and services that are meant to cure, heal, support and improve our bodies and our minds. And as we as a society become more aware and concerned about our health and wellness, the wellness industry and the healthcare industry are hybridizing at their confluence and creating some confusion for the general public and the scientific community. Though they are both very similar in their goals, the wellness industry is not built around the same rigorous scientific principles as the healthcare industry, and it is crucial that consumers and legislatures understand this difference. In this series of articles we will explore this difference and try to provide some understanding on how science has been applied to the wellness industry. But first, let us explore how science works. The scientific method as we know it has its roots in the late 16th century, but has been explored and slowly developed over much longer. The 20th and early 21st centuries have seen an explosion of scientific research and over the last 200 years or so, our understanding of the natural world has grown exponentially. From the seminal work of Charles Darwin to the equations of everyone’s favorite genius, Albert Einstein, to Francis Crick’s and James Watson’s work on DNA, we have seen a radical redefinition of our world. We are, without doubt, in the golden age of scientific enquiry, and are privileged to be witness to this. As we have continued to explore the boundaries of our molecular and celestial universe, we have refined and improved the process of scientific enquiry into what it is today. Science is at its core an attempt to understand and explain the natural world. As such, it is deeply connected to the process of observation and logical thought. In a very crude form, the scientific method can be thought of as consisting of four main steps, namely asking a question, conducting an experiment, analyzing data and drawing a conclusion. In actual fact, science is much more complex than that. To get a better grasp of how science works, it might be better to think of science as being guided by a series of principles rather than being a simple progressive step by step affair.

The first guiding principle of science is to pose a relevant question. This is not as simple as it sounds. We can, of course, ask any question we want, but not all questions can be satisfactorily answered through scientific enquiry. For example, I doubt a scientist can determine if your partner loves you or not. It is as such important to ask not only the right question but to ask it in the right way. When posing our question, a scientist should be guided by two key consideration, namely, can the question be investigated empirically and does the question connect to an observable reality or theory?

The key considerations here are that a scientist must connect her question to reality and must be prepared to explore her question through experimentation and observation. This is particularly relevant in the health and wellness field. We can, for example, ask if a product helps to significantly reduce blood cholesterol levels in people who use it, but it is not very easy to confirm if a product makes people happier, and it is even harder to determine if meditation helps us achieve spiritual well-being. The next step is to formulate a set of predictions or hypothesis. These predictions must be rooted in reality and current theory, and should be testable and verifiable. This means that our predictions should be connected to something we can observe, and they should take in already existing understanding of the world based on previous scientific findings or observations. A good scientist will leave plenty of room for inspiration and creativity. This is also the point at which a scientist would spend a lot of time exploring the selected subject through existing literature and developing an understanding of the subject matter. For many scientists, this is the most interesting and fun part of their work.

There is a lot of room to stretch your ideas here, but it is still critical to remain grounded. We could, for example, predict that avocado is good to apply to the skin because it has high oil content. That makes sense based on our understanding of skin physiology and avocado biology. We could extend it further and say all fruits that grow on trees should be good for the skin. We are now starting to stretch our predictions a little beyond our understanding. If we know nothing about fruits, such a prediction would make sense. But given how much we already know about fruit, this prediction comes across as clearly non-sensical. Nevertheless, notice how both predictions can be easily tested. The next step in our process of scientific enquiry would be experimentation, or to be more exact, and investigation of the question we have posed using acceptable and permitted methodologies. These can take the form of an experiment, or can be observational. Whatever method is selected, the aim of this process is to collect verifiable data that can be used to answer your question. This process involves proper planning, a lot of reference to accepted and permitted methodology, and in many cases, legal and regulatory approval particularly if people are involved.

This latter step is one of the most critical steps in wellness and healthcare scientific studies and is a key component of how we conduct research and development on products that are aimed at human users. In addition, detailed and proper record keeping is key at this stage. The process of designing and conducting an experiment is a cornerstone of the scientific enquiry. Design the wrong experiment, and you will get the wrong data, regardless of how good your question is. There are a couple of key components to experimentation. One is repetition and replicability, and the other is having a control. These are critical right across the field of scientific enquiry but have a particular relevance to wellness. Repetition can to thought of as simply that your experiments or observations should be done more than once. Replicability is just an extension of that, and means that whatever you do should be easily replicated by you or someone else in another similar set of circumstances.

So if I am looking at the effect of raw avocado on human skin, not only should I do a good experiment with all the legal and ethical consideration, but I should also perform the experiment on more than one person, and my experimental procedure should be transparent enough, and as simple as possible, to be repeated by someone else on other people, and using other fruit if they so wish. If I observe that I always have smooth and soft skin when I rub avocado on my hands, I cannot conclude that everyone else will have the same benefit. At this stage, the design of the experiment and the sample size take on critical significance. The other component is having a control. A control is basically a sample of the experiment or observation that remains unchanged by the scientist. To understand it better, we would have to explore the different types of variables in scientific studies, but we can perhaps use an example to illustrate it better here. If you are studying the effect of a turmeric supplement on people, you should not only select a group of people who will use your supplement, but you should also select a group of people who will not be given your supplement, and in an ideal experiment, neither you nor the people taking the supplement should know beforehand who is who.