What Science Is -- and How and Why It Works

What Science Is -- and How and Why It Works

If you cherry-pick scientific truths to serve cultural, economic, religious or political objectives, you undermine the foundations of an informed democracy.

Science distinguishes itself from all other branches of human pursuit by its power to probe and understand the behavior of nature on a level that allows us to predict with accuracy, if not control, the outcomes of events in the natural world. Science especially enhances our health, wealth and security, which is greater today for more people on Earth than at any other time in human history.

The scientific method, which underpins these achievements, can be summarized in one sentence, which is all about objectivity:

Do whatever it takes to avoid fooling yourself into thinking something is true that is not, or that something is not true that is.

This approach to knowing did not take root until early in the 17th century, shortly after the inventions of both the microscope and the telescope. The astronomer Galileo and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon agreed: conduct experiments to test your hypothesis and allocate your confidence in proportion to the strength of your evidence. Since then, we would further learn not to claim knowledge of a newly discovered truth until multiple researchers, and ultimately the majority of researchers, obtain results consistent with one another.

This code of conduct carries remarkable consequences. There's no law against publishing wrong or biased results. But the cost to you for doing so is high. If your research is re-checked by colleagues, and nobody can duplicate your findings, the integrity of your future research will be held suspect. If you commit outright fraud, such as knowingly faking data, and subsequent researchers on the subject uncover this, the revelation will end your career.

It's that simple.

This internal, self-regulating system within science may be unique among professions, and it does not require the public or the press or politicians to make it work. But watching the machinery operate may nonetheless fascinate you. Just observe the flow of research papers that grace the pages of peer reviewed scientific journals. This breeding ground of discovery is also, on occasion, a battlefield where scientific controversy is laid bare.

Science discovers objective truths. These are not established by any seated authority, nor by any single research paper. The press, in an effort to break a story, may mislead the public's awareness of how science works by headlining a just-published scientific paper as "the truth," perhaps also touting the academic pedigree of the authors. In fact, when drawn from the moving frontier, the truth has not yet been established, so research can land all over the place until experiments converge in one direction or another -- or in no direction, itself usually indicating no phenomenon at all.

Once an objective truth is established by these methods, it is not later found to be false. We will not be revisiting the question of whether Earth is round; whether the sun is hot; whether humans and chimps share more than 98 percent identical DNA; or whether the air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen.

The era of "modern physics," born with the quantum revolution of the early 20th century and the relativity revolution of around the same time, did not discard Newton's laws of motion and gravity. What it did was describe deeper realities of nature, made visible by ever-greater methods and tools of inquiry. Modern physics enclosed classical physics as a special case of these larger truths. So the only times science cannot assure objective truths is on the pre-consensus frontier of research, and the only time it couldn't was before the 17th century, when our senses -- inadequate and biased -- were the only tools at our disposal to inform us of what was and was not true in our world.

Objective truths exist outside of your perception of reality, such as the value of pi; E= m c 2; Earth's rate of rotation; and that carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases. These statements can be verified by anybody, at any time, and at any place. And they are true, whether or not you believe in them.

Meanwhile, personal truths are what you may hold dear, but have no real way of convincing others who disagree, except by heated argument, coercion or by force. These are the foundations of most people's opinions. Is Jesus your savior? Is Mohammad God's last prophet on Earth? Should the government support poor people? Is Beyoncé a cultural queen? Kirk or Picard? Differences in opinion define the cultural diversity of a nation, and should be cherished in any free society. You don't have to like gay marriage. Nobody will ever force you to gay-marry. But to create a law preventing fellow citizens from doing so is to force your personal truths on others. Political attempts to require that others share your personal truths are, in their limit, dictatorships.

Note further that in science, conformity is anathema to success. The persistent accusations that we are all trying to agree with one another is laughable to scientists attempting to advance their careers. The best way to get famous in your own lifetime is to pose an idea that is counter to prevailing research and which ultimately earns a consistency of observations and experiment. This ensures healthy disagreement at all times while working on the bleeding edge of discovery.

In 1863, a year when he clearly had more pressing matters to attend to, Abraham Lincoln -- the first Republican president -- signed into existence the National Academy of Sciences, based on an Act of Congress. This august body would provide independent, objective advice to the nation on matters relating to science and technology.

Today, other government agencies with scientific missions serve similar purpose, including NASA, which explores space and aeronautics; NIST, which explores standards of scientific measurement, on which all other measurements are based; DOE, which explores energy in all usable forms; and NOAA, which explores Earth's weather and climate.

These centers of research, as well as other trusted sources of published science, can empower politicians in ways that lead to enlightened and informed governance. But this won't happen until the people in charge, and the people who vote for them, come to understand how and why science works.

Global Warming is Real.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, author of Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, is an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History. His radio show StarTalk became the first ever science-based talk show on television, now in its second season with National Geographic Channel.

Earl and Nagin ... | January 23, 2016

Interesting article. What I sadly see in it, however, is that all of the science mentioned is fully sponsored by the government. In addition to being one-sided and being a result of forcing people to pay for and support it, it is also all subject to political bias.
Unfortunately, private industry funded scientific research such as led to (IMHO) many of the greatest scientific discoveries of the past 200 or so years (metallurgy, materials science, semi-conductors, communications, pharmaceuticals, polymers, adhesives, batteries, etc) all came from privately funded scientific research. There is so little of this going on any more.

Mel. | January 23, 2016

Earl and Nagin...
Great points. Nice to see a little common sense and logic.

Mike83 | January 23, 2016

@SamO +100
Why do basic research?
Lots of reasons.
Here are a few:

In the pharm industry they make "me took" drugs. Google it.

GPS, etc.

Mike83 | January 23, 2016
Anemometer | January 23, 2016

I thought that was you own words and was about to award you for best forum post of 2016 on the internet. ;-) A little early but I've been reading the internet a while and had it been your own words would be a sure bet.

bb0tin | January 24, 2016

@Earl and Nagin
You said "In addition to being one-sided and being a result of forcing people to pay for and support it, it is also all subject to political bias"
Would you provide an example and evidence for some 'one-sided science' please...or did you not understand the Neil deGrasse Tyson explanation of how science works?

SamO | January 24, 2016

Science is one sided. The side of reality.

Brian H | January 24, 2016

Therefore, climate science is not.

bb0tin | January 24, 2016

@Brian H
Your contributions are not on the side of reality.

Dramsey | January 25, 2016


Do you have a degree in an actual scientific discipline?

I'm wondering 'cause it seems that most of the time, people who lecture on the subject of the Inviolability of Science don't have any actual scientific training.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an engaging fellow that does a good job popularizing and explaining science. Well, except when he's making up fake quotes to bolster his point.

SamO | January 25, 2016


If I have a PhD in Climate Science from MIT or dig ditches for a living, I have the capacity to read and understand science.

How it works and why it works.

It seems that most of the time, people who lecture on the subject of climate change have an axe to grind, politically.

The evidence is overwhelming that anthropogenic climate change is real, happening and caused (mostly) by humans IN THE PRESENT DAY.

Ice cores
Temperature measurements
Tree rings
Soil samples
Fossil records
Satellite measurements
Water temperatures
Human records

They all point in a single direction. CO2 is a pollutant that traps heat and causes the earth to warm.

Please point to anything comparable for your argument.

I welcome the observations and measurements that could falsify anthropogenic climate change.

Can you say the same?

Dramsey | January 25, 2016

It's also interesting that Neil's commentary doesn't mention falsifiability, the linchpin of the scientific method. For those interested there's a good description of the scientific method and falsifiability here.

Dramsey | January 25, 2016


I have nothing further to say re climate change; I was merely commenting on your OP.

In my experience it is very easy for people without any formal background in a scientific discipline to misunderstand basic scientific principles and the scientific method. Granted these are not difficult topics and should be easily comprehensible by anyone. Tyson's omission of falsifiability in his polemic is something that most scientists would notice, but most non-scientists would not.

bb0tin | January 25, 2016

Falsifiability is a basic tenet of the scientific method
Neil DeGrasse Tyson had no need to mention it.

What you and many posters do is post your unsupported opinion as truth. Just because it is your opinion does not make it the truth. When that opinion is falsified you do not acknowledge it, but rather fall silent and express your next ignorant incorrect opinion, ad nauseum.

PS: I do have scientific training, but so what. I provide links to the science. I do not expect you to trust my opinion.

SamO | January 25, 2016


Your observations are shallow at best, and stupid at worst. I mentioned falsifiability before you did.

What is your scientific training?

Oil and gas?

RedShift | January 25, 2016


Exactly. What is HIS training?

Also, calling Neil a 'polemic' is pretty accusatory. Personal ideology and bias, that's all they have on their side, and they like us to take them seriously. They'd like to reduce our arguments to their level (ideology, religion, political influence, financial gain, conspiracy, just... whatever it takes)

That's why I have given up arguing with them. No need. Let them cook in their own ignorance and false sense of superiority.

SamO | January 25, 2016


I've dealt with him (and others) cut from the same terrible cloth. Loud-mouthed, ignorant and proudly so. Certain of everything. Can't be told by no fancy "scientists" that the earth 'aint 6000 years old.

Vaccines are mind control shots that cause mental retardation.

Jesus put all the dinosaurs on the ark before sky daddy washed everything away.

But I disagree with you about "giving up."

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. - Edmund Burke

RedShift | January 25, 2016


I agree, and I'd love to spend time arguing - to what end? Let us say I succeed in making all these (how many are there? 7?) believe in AGW. Then what? World still goes on. Political influence far outclasses my efforts here.

What matters in individual responsibility. I am doing my part. Will continue to do so. Those whom I come across, have open minds and patience - I will continue to speak to them.

Here - all I see are closed minds masquerading as something else. Nothing more.

SamO | January 25, 2016

I vote with my dollars for Tesla Motors. I own a Model S.

I also support their mission and travel around the country giving test drives and showing what is possible.

I (will) install SolarCity solar panels as soon as I can pair them the Powerwall.

I will purchase a Model 3 when it is available.

I will argue strongly on the side of critical thinking and science when I see those arguments polluting this board.


bb0tin | January 25, 2016

You said "I agree, and I'd love to spend time arguing - to what end? Let us say I succeed in making all these (how many are there? 7?) believe in AGW. Then what?"

If you accept the science of AGW, and you accept the dire predictions of AGW, then you must accept that we have a very short time to prevent the coming disasters. The political and industrial institutions are not doing anywhere near what is required, or anywhere near quickly enough.
Silence will not change this. Actions only related to the individual will not change this. If we fail to do what is required now, we do not get another chance. It will be too late for many generations to come.
The primary purpose of confronting Climate Change deniers is not to convince them. It is to show others that the denier opinions are ignorant and incorrect. It is to provide links to the scientific evidence of AGW. The deniers will eventually have to answer to their children and children’s children for their actions.

RedShift | January 25, 2016


Changing the minds of a few strangers on the Internet is not going to affect anything. Also, we are not changing even one person's mind here, despite countless pages and hours and hours of posts. A complete waste of my valuable time.

I come here from time to time, sometime for chuckles, sometimes for information, and sometimes, to rebuke countering arguments. I have no illusions about making a real world difference.

RedShift | January 25, 2016


Agreed with you 95%! I wanted to mention 97%, but that might lead to some folks getting their panties in a bunch here! Sorry, excuse the lame joke. Bye fo now, work calls....

bb0tin | January 25, 2016

You do not know how many people were agnostic about AGW, or who thought that the deniers may have been correct, but have since come to accept the science of AGW. Some have already commented that they came to the Tesla forums as sceptics but then came to accept AGW.
As I said earlier, the alternative to confronting the falsehoods is doomed to fail. Confronting the falsehoods has a chance to succeed. Give me a better choice and I am all ears. I have not yet had anyone propose a course of action which will succeed to the extent, and in the time, required.
To my mind, giving up the fight is to be complicit in the suffering and deaths to come. I truely wish the fight was not necesary.

RedShift | January 25, 2016


I'm not advocating you change your ways.

Dramsey | January 25, 2016

@ bb0tin,

Falsifiability is a basic tenet of the scientific method...
Neil DeGrasse Tyson had no need to mention it.

That seems an odd argument to make, considering that he was, you know, explaining the scientific method.


Your observations are shallow at best, and stupid at worst. I mentioned falsifiability before you did.

I was commenting on Tyson's not mentioning it, not you. And I didn't even have to insult you to do it!

What is your scientific training? Oil and gas?

My degree is in biology; my career has been in computer programming (Funny how life works out sometimes.) Do you own a Mac? I'm the author of MacPaint 2.0, FWIW. I've never had anything to do with oil and gas, your presumptions notwithstanding.

Here's an honest question: do you think your aggressive and insulting attitude, belittling those who disagree with you, is an effective way to argue?

I'm wondering 'cause it seems to be the default mode for so many people these days. Raising the mildest criticism of a subject, questioning the methodology, or pointing out that decades of prior predictions have been inaccurate, is met with invective and ridicule. Frequently in my experience, the spittle-flecked replies are made by people whom I can politely describe as "ignorant and innumerate", which is why I asked about your background.

Debate on too many subjects these days consists merely of screaming at the other person and posting links to content that supports your own position. Do schools still run debating clubs? That probably dates me, doesn't it?

Anyway, I think I'm tapped out on this. If it makes you feel better to have the last, doubtless sneering word, please indulge yourself. In the meantime, I have to check the mail: I'm expecting my check for the Koch brothers.

bb0tin | January 25, 2016

You said "That seems an odd argument to make, considering that he was, you know, explaining the scientific method."
Why do you think Neil DeGrasse Tyson not specifically mentioning the word 'falsifiability' is a problem? What particlular science do you think is not falsifiable?

You said "I'm the author of MacPaint 2.0"
Ahh. That David Ramsey.

You said "Raising the mildest criticism of a subject, questioning the methodology, or pointing out that decades of prior predictions have been inaccurate, is met with invective and ridicule."
When evidence is shown that you are incorrect, but you persist with your erroneous opinion, then you have earned ridicule.

You said "and posting links to content that supports your own position"
That is a good thing. Perhaps you should try it yourself.

RedShift | January 25, 2016


When you make an accusation that Neil deGrasse Tyson is a polemicist, you'd better have credentials comparable to him. Based on your own post, you don't.

Based on bb's post, if you are that David Ramsey, then you come off much worse.

MitchP85D | January 25, 2016

Well, since my line of work is most closely related to the big climate change debate, I've been looking for another meteorologist, atmospheric scientist here I can converse with. Am I the only meteorologist who owns a Tesla? If there is another weatherman here, please chime in! I am now working on year 36 is this business. I never had an interest in broadcasting the weather through radio and TV. I just wanted to apply my knowledge of the atmosphere any way I could without a TV camera or microphone in my face. That application has turned out to be for those who really need it; mariners and pilots.

Over my 36 years of weather forecasting, I have used many different computer models. Back in the 1970s to 1980s, it was the LFM (Limited Fine Mesh), PE (Primitive Equations), and NGM (Nested Grid Model). The US Navy has their FNMOC (Fleet Numerical Meteorlogical and Oceanographic Center) model that was used by the Navy meteorologists. That model was later released to the public in the 1990s. As computers became faster and more powerful, a whole bunch of new models came about; GFS, UKMET, NAM, NAVGEM, Canadian, ECMWF and others. There are computer models specifically devised for tropical cyclones.

My experience with using these models has shown me that after 96 hours, the initial errors become compounded, and the forecasts end up with all kinds of solutions depending on which computer model is being used at the time. The confidence of a weather forecast degrades dramatically after 96 hours. With this stated, I never could understand why so much faith would be put into climate models that make predictions that go into a century!

The late, great oceanographer Dr. Roger Revelle expressed skepticism about climate models' ability to project the future state of the atmosphere. Atmospheric scientist Dr. Fred Singer actually had more confidence than Revelle that computer models can be improved in time, and make better predictions. However, Singer is an old fart who has been doing this work for about 60+ years, and he is a strong skeptic about human caused global warming.

Dramsey, your background seems every bit as good about commenting on the Climate Change issue as anybody else's here. I welcome what you have to say!

Brian H | January 25, 2016

Lorenz rulez. Undetectable starting differences produce widely differing results (predictions).

bb0tin | January 26, 2016

You said “Well, since my line of work is most closely related to the big climate change debate”
Your work is not related to the Climate, no more than a gardener’s work is. Weather is not Climate, as you have been told so many times already.
You commented on not trusting the models. But you also do not trust the thermometers. And you do not trust the satellites (although you keep quoting them without accepting that they also agree with the thermometers). So what does that leave? You reading denier blogs like WUWT I guess.
You are an ignorant foolish person.

MitchP85D | January 26, 2016

Hey bb brain,

Climatology is a required course for Meteorology majors. Concerning thermometers, Dr. Richard Keen knows far more about how the data is collected than anybody. I would trust his take on the matter way ahead of those with a political agenda. Computer models are good short-term tools. Not long-term! Basing public policy on long-term computer models is foolish. You read skeptical science blogs. What makes them better than WUWT?

You are a piss..piss..piss..piss..piss person.

bb0tin | January 26, 2016

Please provide evidence that Dr. Richard Keen knows far more about how the data is collected than anybody. He is certainly does not.

You do not need to concern yourself with the long-term predictions of the models. The short-term predictions are bad enough to demand action.

I read science sites and papers. I quote skeptical science, among many other sites, because it is accessible to the general public and provides links to the base science. What makes them better than WUWT? They link to the base science, do not misrepresent it, and do not make dishonest conclusions. WUWT exists to deny Climate Change and not to seek the truth.

Brian H | January 26, 2016

Only if the models are validated. None are, or can be.

bb0tin | January 26, 2016

@Brian H
An a priori dismissal of models is just plain ignorant. If you want to go down that path then dismass all models, whether they be economic, health, weather or anything else.

MitchP85D | January 26, 2016

So bb brain, you found somebody who doesn't like Dr. Richard Keen. Wow, that was impressive!

Now, for a little background:

Richard A. Keen is instructor emeritus at the University of Colorado and a meteorologist who has taught classes and researched climate change, weather, and severe storms at the University of Colorado, National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Park Service, Juneau (Alaska) Ice Field Research Program, and the U.S. Army. He is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Skywatch West: The Complete Weather Guide and The Audubon Society Pocket Guide to Clouds and Storms. His research papers on climate topics (such as el Niño, glaciers, arctic climate change, and volcanoes) have been published in major journals, including Science, Monthly Weather Review, Journal of Climate, Annals of Glaciology, Geophysical Monographs, Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, and International Comet Quarterly. He is currently an expert reviewer for the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Climate Assessment Report..

I would consider him a heavyweight Climate Scientist. And on top of that, he takes weather observations in Colorado for NOAA!

bb0tin | January 26, 2016

Richard A. Keen is a lowly instructor. I don't know how you make that into "knows far more about how the data is collected than anybody". I think every major scientific institution in the world, including the World Meteorological Organisation, knows more than him.

bb0tin | January 26, 2016

I did wonder how such a doofus as Richard A. Keen could be an "expert reviewer for the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Climate Assessment Report".
I guess he asked to see the draft report and signed a NDA. It is amusing that you dismiss the IPCC other times, and then include them as a qualification another time. Pity that the "qualification" is no such thing.

Homebrook | January 27, 2016

CO2 is absolutely necessary for life on this planet. More CO2 means more life. To call CO2 a pollutant is absurd.

Homebrook | January 27, 2016

Neil deGrasse Tyson hoists himself on his own petard.

bb0tin | January 27, 2016

Water is absolutely necessary for life on this planet. More water means more life. To call water a flooding and drowning risk is absurd.

bb0tin | January 27, 2016

Homebrook hoists himself on his own petard.

MitchP85D | January 27, 2016

Hey bb brain,

What in the hell is that stupid-ass list you posted supposed to prove? How many PHD scientists do you know of take weather observations for the National Weather Service, NOAA, or the WMO? Since I'm a weatherman, that impresses the hell out of me. A Layman, apparently doesn't understand the significance.

I challenge anybody here to Google Dr. Richard Keen - Climate scientist from the University of Colorado and watch his presentation on how global temperatures are measured. If you walk away thinking Dr. Keen is just some "lowly instructor," then you have your head shoved up your ass! And that especially means you bb brain!

bb0tin | January 27, 2016

You said "How many PHD scientists do you know of take weather observations for the National Weather Service, NOAA, or the WMO"
You tell me. You have no idea.

You said "I challenge anybody here to Google Dr. Richard Keen"
I already did.

If you walk away thinking that every major scientific organisation in the world, including your own meteorological organisations, are to be dismissed, then you have your head shoved up your ass! And that especially means you MitchP85D!

MitchP85D | January 28, 2016

Hey bb brain,

I would not be surprised at all if Richard Keen is the only PHD scientist in the world who takes weather observations for the National Weather Service! I do not know of any weather observer who has a PHD.

If you saw his presentation, what are the 3 weather stations in Colorado that share the same climatology, but show 3 different temperature trends since the early 20th century?!

Your post of those organizations is irrelevant!

The scientist, and the science he reveals is what's important. Keen, Spencer, Lindzen stand head and shoulders above any AGW advocate.

bb0tin | January 28, 2016

You said "I would not be surprised at all if Richard Keen is the only PHD scientist in the world who takes weather observations for the National Weather Service"
How on earth would you know how many have PhDs? You don't know. There are over 8700 weather observers for the National Weather Service. It is yet another ridiculous ignorant statement from yourself.

You said "Your post of those organizations is irrelevant!"
Why are organisations representing thousands of scientists irrevelant?

You said "The scientist, and the science he reveals is what's important."
No. The science is important. The scientist is not. Unless you think that smoking does not cause cancer because a scientist says so.

MitchP85D | January 28, 2016

Your smoking analogy is stupid. It has no relation to the subject.

Maybe it will be a good homework assignment for you. Find out how many PHD scientists take weather observations for the National Weather Service - NOAA. I assure you. You will not find a whole heck of a lot of 'em! Dr. Keen is unique. He knows whereof he speaks when it comes to recording weather data. He actually and physically does it in addition to studying the data on a global scale.

bb brain, since you are a layman, you can't grasp the significance of a PHD scientist maintaining the rudimentary practice of basic meteorology. Those who acquire weather training from the military always start off as a weather observer. That is kind of like basic training for weather forecasters. Those who progress from weather observer typically leave weather observing behind. None of the military trained weather forecasters I know of go back to taking weather observations. This is why I am so impressed with Keen. He actually finds time to take weather observations for NOAA while at the same time teaching and researching weather and climate.

You should show more respect for this weather scientist than you do! And the same goes for the rest of you AGW advocates here in this Tesla Forum!

bb0tin | January 28, 2016

The scientists saying there is no link to between smoking and cancer is just the same as scientists who say there is no AGW. If you cannot see the relation you are simply displaying your stupidity again.

I have no interest in trawling through 8700 resumes to count the PhDs. The point is that you haven’t either, but you still made your ignorant statement.

You said “bb brain, since you are a layman”
You have no idea whether I am or not. More ignorant opinion on your part.

You said “You should show more respect for this weather scientist than you do!”
Why? You dismiss thousands of scientists out of hand all the time. You only ‘admire’ those scientists who you think agree with your position.

The weather is not the climate, for the umpteenth time.

MitchP85D | January 29, 2016

And you dismiss thousands of meteorologists who think AGW theory is flawed!

I'm quite certain you are NOT a meteorologist. That is why I call you a layman, as well as bb brain!

bb0tin | January 30, 2016

The meteoroglists who study the climate accept AGW. Those who do not should be listened to as much as gardeners are listened to on Climate Change.

MitchP85D | January 30, 2016

And bb brain,

In your world, atmospheric scientist John Christy, who won the 1991 medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement from NASA, SHOULD BE IGNORED!

Geeeyawwd, you're dumb!