We all know the origin myth of science. We’ve been told that Isaac Newton discovered the theory of gravity after an apple fell on his head. But science, to some extent, has become a belief system, and not just a method for collecting data and verifying claims.
Science, like many fields, has done some spectacular things to benefit people. But what really drives science?
- Information Sharing
- The Scientific Method
Science isn’t about believing any particular thing, as much as it’s about having a specific relationship with knowledge. Scientific knowledge is externally verifiable, and worth sharing with others in the effort to grow humanity’s knowledge.
The Invisible College
The Invisible College was a group of scientific researchers and natural philosophers led by Robert Boyle (famous for Boyle’s Law). They employed the scientific method of experimentation and then shared their results with one another.
Members of the Invisible College were, in a sense, the founders of the “scientific community.” Starting in the 17th century, they shared information and results with each other through writings and letters, building a corpus of knowledge.
Just for a moment, think about how different that was from previous models of information sharing. Previously, if a researcher discovered information, that information was likely shared linearly with students, or maybe with a couple of colleagues. The whole relationship of the researcher to knowledge underwent a massive shift with the advent of science.
With the Invisible College, information was suddenly spread widely throughout Europe. The Invisible College was the immediate predecessor of the Royal Society, and is in that sense the direct ancestor of modern science.
When Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants,” he was hailing a new age of information sharing. In a philosophical sense, these natural philosophers were the forbears of today’s internet, where information is shared rapidly, allowing one scientific and technological advance after another.
The Scientific Method
The Invisible College did more than share information. The second major advance was defining what “knowledge” is. The Scientific Method, the basic way that science develops and tests information, was used as a means of validating and verifying information. These natural philosophers—early scientists—not only shared information but also agreed on what kind of information it was. Hypotheses needed to be independently verifiable. No matter who did the tests, or where, they would yield the same results every time.
- Perform basic observations
- Hypothesize an explanation
- Test the hypothesis
- Analyze and interpret data
When information sharing and experimental verification are combined, suddenly we have two features that combine very powerfully: testing ideas and letting others test them. It transforms the relationship between people (scientists) from competitors to collaborators. It puts the generation of data, of knowledge, above other values, making the growth of human knowledge regarding the natural world a “higher good.”
We don’t even think twice about the information that the scientific community, indeed all of academia, shares. These ideas of collaboration, working together to improve the world, and the whole notion of progress, all come down to people choosing to share their findings and to grow the sum of human knowledge about the world. That’s a game-changer.
With the commitment of wild-eyed (scientific) fanatics, the early scientists set out to make something larger than themselves: a view of the world that most of us take for granted today. Chemistry, biology, physics, and all the natural sciences owe their existence to these 17th century philosophers, and their foresight in realizing that sharing information with each other would improve human knowledge in a way that withholding it would not.
The Scientific Method and You
But what seems to have been lost sometimes is the core of the Scientific Method. Science isn’t just believing in gravity, or even understanding the basic formulas that allow us to launch probes to Mars. Science, at its root, is about challenging assumptions about “what we know” and collaborating to find new ways to understand the world around us. And that isn’t just a job for people who work in laboratories. In the Information Age, where people find themselves inundated with more information than they can rationally process, the Scientific Method provides a means for understanding and parsing that information.
When we find ourselves faced with challenges of understanding, with models of behavior, it is by coming back to the Scientific Method that we can get beyond winning the argument, and instead truly make progress in understanding the world.
Let’s say that we’re faced with a situation where one of two possible business processes needs to be chosen for implementation. Human nature says that we pick the one people agree on, or even the one experts agree on. Maybe we just listen to the sales pitches of the marketers. But here, you can let your inner scientist run wild and actually experiment. Experimentation is the hallmark of science.
Now, I know, you hardly need a lab coat and goggles for that kind of experiment. But we can use the Scientific Method outside of the lab. Both standardized verification of information and the sharing of information can lead us beyond competing with each other and toward effective collaboration.