HOW TO MAKE SENSE OOUT OF SCIENCE
David H. Levy
New Drugs Kill Cancer
Devastation by El Nino—a Warning
6: 30 p.m. October 26, 2028: Could This Be the Deadline for the Apocalypse?
When these headlines appeared this year, their stories became the subjects of conversations around the world—talks spiced with optimism and contusion. Imagine the hopes raised in the millions battling cancer. Did the news mean these people never had to worry about cancer again? Or that we all had to worry about a catastrophe from outer space or, more immediately, from El Nino?
Unfortunately, science doesn't work that way. It rarely arrives at final answers. People battling cancer or victims of El Nino may find this frustrating, but the truth is that Nature does not yield her secrets easily. Science is done step by step. First an idea is formed. Then this is tested by an experiment. The outcome, one hopes, results in an increase in knowledge.
Science is not a set of unquestionable results but a way of under standing the world around us. Its real work is slow. The scientific method, as many of us learned in school, is a gradual process that begins with a purpose or a problem or question to be answered. It includes a list of materials, a procedure to follow, a set of observations to make and, finally, conclusions to reach. In medicine, when a new drug is proposed that might cure or control a disease, it is first tested on a large random group of people, and their reactions are then compared with those of another random group not given the drug. All reactions in both groups are carefully recorded and compared, and the drug is evaluated. All of this takes time—and patience.
It's the result of course, that makes the best news—not the years of quiet work that characterize the bulk of scientific inquiry. After an experiment is concluded or an observation is made, the result continues to be examined critically. When it is submitted for publication, it goes to a group of the scientist 's colleagues, who review the work. If the work is important enough, just before the report is published in a professional journal or read at a conference, a press release is issued and an announcement is made to the world.
The world may think that the announcement signifies the end of the process, but it doesn't. A publication is really a challenge: "Here is my result. Prove me wrong!” Other researchers will try to repeat the experiment, and the more often it works, the better the chances that the result is sound. Einstein was right when he said: "No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can at any time prove me wrong.”
In August 1996, NASA announced the discovery in Antarctica of a meteorite from Mars that might contain evidence of ancient life on another world. As President Clinton said that day, the possibility that life existed on Mars billions of years ago was potentially one of the great discoveries of our time.
After the excitement wore down and initial papers were published, other researchers began looking at samples from the same meteorite. Some concluded that the "evidence of life" was mostly contamination from Antarctic ice or that there was nothing organic at all in the rock.
Was this a failure of science, as some news reports trumpeted?
No! It was a good example of the scientific method working the way it is supposed to. Scientists spend years on research, announce their findings, and these findings are examined by other scientists. That's how we learn. Like climbing a mountain, we struggle up three feet and fall back two. It's a process filled with disappointments and reverses, but somehow we keep moving ahead.