The pandemic ignited public interest in science, introducing the phrase "doing my research." But the persistence of the idea that science aims to "prove" anything reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what scientists actually do.
What Science Is, and Isn't
Scientists test hypotheses based on observations of the natural world, then deduce possible explanations, using experiments and further observations. We analyze data, draw tentative conclusions, then ask more questions. The scientific method is, as I've called it in my textbooks, a cycle of inquiry. Variations on the theme are spawned from creative thinking.
So when ideas and advice about responses to COVID changed, it wasn't because science or scientists had been "wrong." It's that what we thought we knew changed as we learned more. Advice to not use, or use, masks is a good example. We needed to know the size of the droplets and their speed of transit and proximity to an inhaling nose, to predict parameters for infection transmission and hypothesize how we could best respond.
Science isn't a static proof of anything. And it is dynamic.
The public could gain a good understanding of what science is, and is not, by observing the scientific method on display at science fairs.
I've judged science fairs, at all levels, for a long time, through pre-Internet posters done with magic markers and oaktag (whatever that was), to the zoom renditions of the past three years, to a fantastic in-person experience last weekend. Participants display the results of sometimes years-long projects, in posters and powerpoint presentations and demonstrations, that adhere to and elaborate on the steps of the scientific method. Sophistication of projects has paralleled the growth of information science, including wide availability of data ripe for comparison, interpretation, and further hypothesizing.
To continue reading, go to DNA Science, where this post first appeared.