What To Expect When Expecting Science: An Introduction

Science is a very large umbrella term that includes fields such as biology, physics, chemistry, psychology, and many others. To me, science is an adventure that helps me to understand how the things we see and use works. Why is the sky blue? How do planes stay in the air? How does my voice go into a phone and travel across the world to someone in Japan? Can a bacteria store music? All these questions are answerable through science because science is basically conducting a bunch of tests to answer those questions.

At its most basic level, science is:

  1. Observing something
  2. Making an educated guess on why that something is happening
  3. Planning and conducting a procedure (scenario, trial, etc…) to test your guess.
  4. Collecting and understanding your results.

But all of that are fairly common knowledge. What is important in our expectation of science is that the results be accurate and true. Otherwise, it might as well be science fiction. Two of the big things that makes science so impartial to fictions, opinions, and falsehoods are the power of the peer review process and the ability to reproduce the results from an experiment.

The peer review process is submitting your science article (comprising all of your experiment planning and results) to a bunch of experts to be reviewed. These experts are within the field that the experiment surrounds so they understand the work being done. They are also impartial, which ensures accurate review. These experts go over all of the details in the article, from how the experiment was done, what was used, how the results were interpreted, and how accurate it is presented to readers. They also make suggestions to clarify issues they may find. They may even decline to allow the article to be published if it is too inaccurate.

Peer-reviewed journals, like Nature Magazine, are not willing to accept any article if they have not gone through this process. This is important because it helps to prevent false information from being published. However, there are journals and places for articles to be published that are not peer-reviewed. If you are reading an article and want to check the validity of it, ensuring that it came from a peer-reviewed journal is helpful. This does not mean that articles that are not peer-reviewed are filled with false information, but the peer-review process gives you a higher level of assurance versus not peer-reviewed.

The other arm in ensuring that accurate information is being given is the ability of any experiment to be reproducible. If a scientist in Japan publishes an article using a certain set of materials and methods to produce a certain result, then a scientist in Canada should be able to get those same results using the same materials and methods. If this those not happen, then something is very wrong. It is like baking a cake: if two people follow the same baking instructions then they should end up with the same cake. If not, then someone did something wrong. If the results are not reproducible, then it becomes important to understand why. There could have been a simple mistake that was not noticed in the article. This is unlikely, though not impossible, if done in a peer-review process. There could have been environmental factors that could not have been controlled or reported, like temperature changes or slight diet changes in live animal experiments. There could also have been a purposeful intent to create false information for financial, personal, prestige, or academic gains. For some scientists, the pressure to get grants for future research can be a catalyst to present false information. 

It is becoming increasingly important to not just understand what the results of a given experiment are, but also how these results came to be and how well they were reviewed before getting to you, the reader. So join me as I explore many different science topics across many different fields and use this as an opportunity to learn alongside me and test yourselves to find out how accurate my sources are.

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