Growing up, science was my worst subject. Nonetheless, I found myself drawn to it because of what I perceived to be stability. It seemed to be the stuff of facts – not just any, old facts, either, but testable, provable ones.
There was an idea, a hypothesis, then an experiment and then there it was—a nugget of solid, unadulterated certainty.It was that simple. It seemed so safe. I did not understand how anyone could look at a piece of scientific evidence and take it as anything but absolute fact.When science spoke, the debate for me was over.
It has been six years since I started working in my first real laboratory, and in that time I have come to discover that my conception of science was completely and utterly false.
Now, I'm not saying that science is not an authority. As far as I'm concerned, it is still the best method of thought that we have, and there are many things for which—barring some earth-shattering discovery—there is enough evidence for us to know pretty conclusively.
Global warming, for example—the verdict's in on that one.
Vaccines causing autism? We're pretty sure that's not a thing.
What we know even more certainly is that science is not some solid, immovable force. It, like everything else in life, is simply not that simple.
I'm going to talk about evolution (yes, we've decided on that one, too) for a little bit. Evolution, coming with the urgency of survival, is situational. It is not intentionally directed towards the formation of some higher, better being. It goes slowly, building on itself in whatever direction is best at the moment, and we happen to get better as a matter of unintended consequence. There is no perfect being that we will one day evolve towards because what works best in one situation will not in the next.
Science works the same way. There is no perfect, ultimate truth that we are reaching for. We work in environments and in situations, looking for what is currently the best fit, and as these environment and situations change, so will our theories.The best summation that I have seen of this was posted in an online blog by former New York University post-doctoral fellow, Thomas Schofield.
"Science," he says, "is about finding better ways to be wrong."And isn't that a safer alternative?I know that I, at least, have had plenty of practice being wrong. I research science because it is my hope that one of these days – with some systematic, thought-out failing – I can find myself wrong in a way that is just right for the current situation.
When I stepped into my first real laboratory, I was prepared to dedicate myself to the secure pursuit of cold, hard fact.
Instead, I found an even more comforting truth: science is just as human as we are.
Melissa Lee is senior in College Scholars. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.