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.
This allows a scientist to isolate any observable effect from so called background effects, and to pin down accurately the possibility that what she has observed is indeed due to the intervention she has introduced. If I have 100 people taking my turmeric supplement and 100 people not taking it, I will be better able to conclude that differences I observe between the groups are due to the turmeric supplement. In human cases, it is even recommended that subjects be given a placebo or a sugar pill so they are not consciously aware that they are not subjects in the experiment. The human mind is a powerful thing, and we can wish ourselves into wellness given the right stimulation. Once you have completed your experiment, your next step is the analysis of your data and the drawing of conclusions from this data. At this stage, you have to explore your data as extensively as you can, looking to answer a few questions. Does your data support or refute your idea? Does it answer the question you had posed? Is it vague and inconclusive? Or does it support an entirely new explanation? Analysis is done using statistics and scientific results are represented through graphs, models and other tools.
Analysis is simply a more detailed representation of the observation, and nothing more, but it does allow us to draw more accurate conclusions. A simple example of this is comparing the statement “Most people who used avocado had softer skin” to “69% of the people who used avocado had softer skin after 2 days of use, with this percentage climbing to 95% after 5 days of use”. The first is simply an observation, while the second statement is an analysis. Both statements simply describe what was observed, but the latter is much richer in information. Once you have analysed your data, you can begin to draw conclusions. At this stage, as a scientist, you need to develop a coherent and logical explanation for your observations. You not only need to connect your findings to your earlier question, but you also need to ground them in existing theory and understanding of the subject matter. If your findings do not fit the current understanding of the subject and cannot be explained through any known logical and explicit chain of reasoning, then you need to repeat your experiment and seek some input from other scientists. You are more likely to have made a mistake in your experiment than to have discovered a completely new feature of the natural world. The last step is to disclose your research in as explicit a detail as possible to allow professional scrutiny and critique from your peers. At this stage, you also open the doors for others to replicate your work across different studies and environments. The strongest scientific finding is the one that stands the most tests and the most scrutiny. In today’s world, scientific discoveries are published in several peer reviewed journals, with different journals catering to different fields. Fellow scientists review these discoveries, and often set about replicating them or at the very least, scrutinizing the logic of their findings and conclusions. Even prior to publication, your findings are scrutinized by editors and reviewers in your field who look not only at your findings but at your methodology and your theory. In actual fact, by the time a discovery has reached the general public, it has probably gone through layers, and sometimes years, of scrutiny by the scientific community. And this is a key piece of scientific enquiry. The skepticism that every scientific discovery must face, not only from its primary proponent but also from her peers, is a critical bulwark against extreme and unsupported claims and one of the cornerstones of modern science. It is also the reason that for the most part we are able to trust scientific discoveries.
It is important to understand that the outline above is not always a liner process, and scientists rarely work in isolation. At every step described, there is a lot of exploration and collaboration and exchange of ideas. The steps are also not always separated by a clear end and a beginning but often form a free-flowing process of learning and developing, correction and improvement, exchange and understanding. What is important to understand is that the process of scientific enquiry is built around a few core principles that guide how this process is carried out. The aim of these guidelines is to ensure that discoveries can be trusted and can be relevant to our current understanding. In human healthcare research and development, the rigor of adherence to these principles is even stronger and the level of scrutiny is extremely high. This attempt to isolate the scientific process from human error, conjecture, faith and ill-will is what stands science above and beyond our other pursuits. There are, inevitability, rogue scientists, liars and data fabricators in science as well, but for the most part, though we may not always agree with what scientists say, we can be pretty sure that they are reporting what they observed; and if we do not wish to trust them, we have avenues for exploring and critiquing their work.
Further reading: https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/embeds/50-how-science-works#Exploring https://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/scienceflowchart https://www.huffingtonpost.com/neil-degrasse-tyson/what-science-is-and-how-and-why-it-works_b_8595642.html