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A true scientist doesn't believe anything. He is the ultimate agnostic. He is all question and no answer.

UNFORTUNATELY, a lot of people seem to think science is just another kind of magic. Or worse, they think that science is a kind of religion, and that it's just a different kind of faith. Or that science is mutable, and that reality can be voted on. Some people even think that science is the enemy of religion. No, it is not any of those things.

Science is an access to knowledge. It is a rigorous and unforgiving discipline. It is unsentimental--it discards old ideas on the trash heap of history as fast as they are discredited. (1) It accepts few concepts only so far as they explain the facts at hand better than the old ones.

Science is not--as some people think--the place where answers are found. It is the place where questions are asked. Science is not about knowledge--it is about ignorance, because science is about nothing if it is not about the search for greater knowledge. In science, an answer is only the place where you stopped asking the question. (2)

The core of science is the scientific method--a procedure for determining the difference between knowledge and belief.

Belief is kind of like wishing. It exists inside yourself. It's a derivation of what psychologists call "magical thinking." Belief is a conviction that the universe works a certain way, even though you have no physical evidence at all to prove it, only your faith. Faith is useful, very useful, but it's not science.

Knowledge, on the other hand, is evidence. It exists outside yourself. It is measurable, it is testable, it is repeatable, and it is demonstrable. Most important, it can be communicated to other people. They can repeat the measurements and tests and demonstrate the same facts for themselves. In other words, knowledge is what we can all agree on, because we can each verify it for ourselves.

So the scientific method is a procedure for determining the evidence. It is a way of establishing agreement.

It works like this: You observe a phenomenon of some kind--a condition, a behavior, a curiosity--something that you do not understand. Other people observe it too, so you know it exists, but you have no explanation for it. So you postulate a theory.

Is your theory accurate or not? How do you find out?

You test it.

You design an experiment that allows you to test only that single question, nothing else; i.e., the only variable is the one you are testing; everything else is a constant from one test to the next.

Whatever the specific result of the experiment, it is always a success--because it always gives you information. It is either information about what works, or it is information about what doesn't work; but either way, the result of the experiment is a fact, and each fact is a piece of knowledge.

Even if the experiment confirms your theory, you're still not done. That's the annoying thing about science--you're never done. One of two things can happen: Either a better theory comes along and you throw out the old one, or another fact comes along that doesn't fit your theory and you have to come up with a new one.

So the scientific method is about asking the question, and asking it again, and asking it yet again. It's about testing the facts as well as the theory, forever. To the scientific mind, there is no end. Theories aren't proven, they are simply used--and only as long as they are useful.

A theory is a map of a specific terrain of knowledge. It's not the territory, it's just a representation of it. Depending on what we need to do, we specify what kind of a map we need. Road maps are different from weather maps, rainfall maps are different from geological survey maps, terrain maps are different from maps to movie stars' homes. Every map is useful for the purpose it was designed for--and useless for the purposes it was not designed for.

As the researchers in our world continue to refine the different maps of the terrain we've discovered, the various maps become more accurate and more useful, and we become more powerful in what we can accomplish. That's why we make maps, and that's what science is about--mapmaking.


(1.) "The great tragedy of Science--the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."--Aldous Huxley.

(2.) "Troth in science can be defined as the working hypothesis best suited to open the way to the next better one."--Konrad Lorens.

David Gerrold, recipient of the Hugo award and the Nebula award, began writing professionally in 1967. He has published more than 40 books, including The War Against the Chtorr, Jumping Off the Planet, The Martian Child, The Voyage of the Star Wolf, The Man Who Folded Himself, and When HARLIE Was One. He has a web site at: Reprinted with permission of the author from Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2001. Copyright[c] 2001 by David Gerrold.
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Author:Gerrold, David
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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