Science: It's not just a word, it's a method.

If watching shows about paranormal investigators has taught me anything about science it’s that all you need is a dream and a few gadgets to be a scientist, lab coats are optional. Unfortunately science really isn’t just wandering around spooky old houses with cameras looking for something that could be confused for a ghost after a couple of beers and some intense squinting. Science, at its heart, isn’t simply a realm of study like physics or chemistry, it’s a methodology, a way of systematically approaching the natural world in order to better understand how it works. The scientific method – which is as cleverly named as everything else in science – is very straightforward, refined over the last few centuries by some of the greatest minds in their search for the truth. Most people encounter the scientific method some time in grade school and then promptly forget about it. By understanding the scientific method it becomes easier to separate real scientists from people just spouting out scientific jargon that sounds like something out of Star Trek. The apocryphal story of how Archimedes discovered the principles of displacement is a great example of the scientific method in action. It begins with a problem, the king of Syracuse has received a new crown but wants to know whether or not the goldsmith that he bought it from ripped him off. The king brought Archimedes before him and told the scientist that he wanted to know if the crown was real without damaging it. After Archimedes went home to ponder the problem he sank into his tub to unwind. As he lowered himself into the steaming water he cursed as some of the water spilled out onto the floor and more followed it as the rest of his body went into the tub. Observation is the first step in the scientific method, it poses a problem in the mind of a scientist that begs to be solved. Scientists don’t just make these observations in the lab during the course of other experiments, they notice what happens in the world outside and wonder how it works, like when Archimedes noticed that the water was falling out of the tub as he jumped in it. After taking note of their observations a scientist forms a hypothesis about what’s going on. A hypothesis is a lot like an educated guess, or a working assumption, that tries to explain what’s going on in an observation, as Archimedes leapt from his tub and ran out into the street shouting “eureka” (which translates roughly as “I found it” ) he was talking about his hypothesis. Based upon the hypothesis a scientist will make a prediction about how other variables with affect the phenomenon and design a test to see whether or not their hypothesis is correct. By making this prediction based upon a hypothesis a scientist is creating testable criteria that will show if the hypothesis holds water. If the hypothesis doesn’t lend itself to prediction then it wouldn’t be possible to test it and it couldn’t be proved or disproved. Archimedes thought that an object would displace a volume of water relative to the volume of the submerged object, thus if he put a 2 liter block into the water it would displace 2 liters of water. Experiments are generally designed to test one variable (in Archimedes’ case it was volume of an object rather than its composition) and are repeated a number of times in order to ensure that the results are accurate. Repetition (and the ability of people other than the experimenter to perform the experiment) is important because it can help to eliminate errant results (like if Archimedes had mislabeled his blocks), it also means that if someone simply made up their results then someone else could go back and check the experiment later on. So Archimedes set up an experiment where he submerged blocks of a known volume in water. After he had run enough trials to satisfy himself that the results were accurate he gathered together all of the data and thought about what he had learned. The experiment was an opportunity to make new observations under controlled conditions, observations that are much more precise and useful than just incidental or casual observations. A scientist will evaluate the data from their observations and then draw conclusions; if the conclusions are consistent with the prediction then the hypothesis takes a step forward, if they’re not then the hypothesis takes a step back. Ultimately a scientist hopes to make this hypothesis a part of a theory, which is a framework where observations are explained and predictions are made. Typically in order to become a theory a series of hypotheses have to have evidence behind them commensurate with their claims (Archimedes’ theory of displacement would require only a little evidence because the claim is very straightforward). Archimedes was right about his hypothesis about displacement, but that was only the first step in figuring out whether or not the crown was genuine gold. By knowing the volume of the crown he could figure out its density and compare that to the known density of gold. After Archimedes settled down and got his clothes back on he divided the weight of the crown into its volume in order to determine its density. Luckily for the goldsmith Archimedes was able to show the king that hsi crown was the real deal and everyone walked away a little happier because of the scientific method. The scientific method – observation, prediction, testing and analyses – is designed to help scientists be objective about their research, it helps them to remember that their predictions are fallible and that new hypotheses and tests could change the direction of an entire field. The paranormal investigators may be going around making observations, but they are not testing their beliefs about ghosts. What they are doing is profoundly different from science and it persists because people assume that science is all about making measurements rather than a consistent methodology and philosophy. Paranormal researchers start with a belief and go out to prove that belief, interpreting their observations as evidence. Of course understanding the scientific method is only the first step in separating the good, the bad and the pseudo science.