By remaining curious and open-minded, we can all think scientifically
The nineteenth-century physicist Lord Kelvin, Professor at Glasgow University, said in 1900 that “the beauty and clearness of [physics]… is at present obscured by two clouds”. Concealed within these clouds were the two most successful theories of twentieth century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics. Between them they describe the Universe, from the incredibly huge to the unimaginably small.
These two theories are the pillars of modern physics, and yet they remain theories. Scientific theories are more than just ideas – they represent our best understanding of the Universe at this time, and they are supported by evidence. However new evidence can arise which challenges the old theories, just as Kelvin’s clouds did. Newton’s theory of gravity successfully stood for 300 years but was unable to explain Mercury’s orbit, and was replaced by general relativity.
To think like a scientist is to critically and dispassionately assess the new evidence, and to be prepared and willing to change one’s mind should the new evidence prove compelling. This can involve letting go of deeply held ideas about how things work – something that is not easy to do. It is difficult to challenge our own preconceptions and be open to the ideas of others.
Like everyone else, scientists struggle with emotions and biases, and must work hard to keep an open mind. Yet without this willingness to discuss concepts and have our own ideas challenged, science would have stalled many centuries ago.
Thinking like a scientist means holding one’s own beliefs as provisional, as a working model that is useful until something else comes along. The truly great scientists share one thing – they are willing to challenge the received wisdom of the time, to assess ideas on their own merits. Science is a world of inherent uncertainty – nothing is beyond doubt, everything is open to question.
Our wider world is currently full of uncertainty. We live in a changing world, in a society which is deeply politically divided, where arguments and counter-arguments spread online like wildfire. In a world where we have instant access to innumerable facts, for most of us the onslaught of information is simply overwhelming. For the most part, we stay within bubbles, exposing ourselves to views which broadly agree with our own.
Such a bubble world is comforting, but without exposure to ideas and evidence that challenge our views, we can become entrenched in our opinions, considering only the evidence that agrees with our pre-held beliefs.
We don’t need a formal scientific training in order to be able to think like scientists. Each of us is capable of asking questions, participating in discussions and keeping our minds open to new ideas. In this uncertain world, we all need a healthy dose of scepticism, a curiosity to find out how things work and a readiness to listen. We all need to think like scientists.
This piece originally appeared in The Scotsman on 22 May 2017 as part of the Scotsman200 feature.