The Greatest Invention Of All Time

Photo: Horia Varlan

The greatest invention of all time isn’t, as is sometimes argued, penicillin. Nor is it the computer. Nor is it running water, electricity, the automobile, or the airplane. Rather, it’s the thing that has made all of these things—and so many more—possible: the scientific method itself.

Many people don’t realize that the scientific method is a relatively recent development, something not inborn but something that was invented, originating sometime around the 17th century. Prior to that, people explained the world around them with stories that they’d either learned from the previous generation or that they invented themselves. It wasn’t until the 17th century that anyone began trying to figure out how ideas could be rigorously tested.

Which is really what it means to think scientifically: to accept something as true only if it is supported by evidence. This, of course, isn’t the only method by which people evaluate the veracity of ideas. But it turns out to be the best way. In fact, the only way.

Of course, people also judge the truth of things based on their feelings. The problem with this, however, is that we’re all so full of biases that the intuitive method of arriving at truth must be considered unreliable at best and downright dangerous at worst. Though sometimes our feelings end up being right (especially if such feelings are actually intuitions based on subconscious observations), when they are it usually means we just got lucky.

The problem with trying to discover truth through feeling is that we can’t avoid being influenced by our biases, no matter how hard we try. Rare is the person who asks a question without some pre-existing reason to believe one answer over another—or without some attachment to a particular process of investigating the truth that biases the result. The scientific method, in contrast, offers particular ways of conducting observations that reduce or eliminate our biases so that we can confidently believe the answers it yields.

Thus, for example, when asking if a particular intervention will help a disease (e.g., does Viagra work for impotence?) we attempt to nullify the effect of our desire for it to work by creating a control intervention (e.g., giving a placebo to some patients) to which everyone, experimenter and subjects alike, are “blind” (meaning no one knows who gets the placebo and who gets the real pill). This example highlights the two most important aspects of the scientific method: 1) it uses observation and evidence to determine truth and 2) it works to reduce or eliminate any and all biases that might influence the accuracy of those observations.

The scientific method also requires that the theories we create to explain observations make predictions that can be tested. When subsequent experiments then find those predictions to be right, our confidence in our theory increases. When they find those predictions to be wrong, we must either revise our theory and test its new predictions, or discard our theory entirely and come up with a new one. This means that of necessity science advances slowly. It takes time to design and perform experiments, which then must be reproduced by others to be fully accepted. Also, this means that science is better at disproving theories than proving them. If a theory’s predictions turn out to be wrong, then the theory is wrong. But no matter how many predictions a theory makes that turn out to be right, it always remains possible that some future experiment could yield an observation that invalidates it. On the other hand, the more predictions that a theory makes that turn out to be right, the less and less likely it becomes over time that the theory will be disproved. If reams of data argue in support of a theory and a few pieces of data argue against it, more likely than not the theory simply needs to be modified. This is why even well-established truths, like evolution and gravity, are still referred to as theories. Not because we’re not confident that they’re true, but because science always allows for the possibility that some new observation will be made that requires theories to be revised.

The scientific method may seem unwieldy and problematic—and it is. But it’s the only method we have that we know with complete confidence accurately separates what is true from what is false. For the evidence is all around us: every single modern convenience we have came directly from its application.

Special Note to Readers: Next week I’m on vacation, so I won’t be putting up a post. Further, beginning next year, I will no longer be posting every Monday. I’m working on my next book as well as…something else (that I’ll talk about eventually), and as a result no longer have the time to create quality posts on a weekly basis. I will continue to put up posts when I feel I have something interesting and useful to say, but probably closer to biweekly or even monthly. I thank you all for your interest in my writing and hope you will continue to visit!

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