Scientific discoveries rarely take the fast track.
The 2020 election cycle can teach us an important lesson about the nature of the scientific endeavor. Namely, how researchers rarely have the instantaneous “aha” moment when everything becomes clear and a scientific theory springs forth ex nihilo. The immediacy of our society in many ways demands explanations without the hard work of collecting adequate evidence to support a particular model for a phenomenon. This is true for elections, where people have an expectation of knowing an outcome even when there is still outstanding data, or even when the preponderance of evidence suggests a conclusion other than a desired outcome. It is also true for the development of any health intercession, where it takes time for tests and trials to ensure its safety and efficacy. And it is true for the development of other new scientific knowledge.
Science is a story of starts and stops, of tentative theories discarded or enhanced depending on subsequent findings. The timeline for the discovery of gravitational waves started over a century ago with the ponderings of Henri Poincaré, then with Albert Einstein and his development of the General Theory of Relativity. Even Einstein cast doubt on the implications of his own theory, particularly because the solutions to the equations required a singularity.
The first gravitational-wave detectors were built in the 1960‘s, however the data collected was suspect. The following decade produced indirect evidence for gravitational waves, inspiring further research and refinements to the detectors. It took the sensitivity of the second-generation LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) to finally provide incontrovertible evidence for gravitational waves only a few months shy of a century after Einstein’s prediction of them.
As a society, we are somehow more comfortable when solutions are arrived at in much shorter time frames. The aforementioned “aha” moment is in direct conflict with how actual science is done, with the necessity of peer review and continued testing of ideas to see if they in fact reflect the observed phenomena. In this sense, all theories are tentative pending further investigation and refinement as new evidence comes to light. The quest for a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus is a case study in how science is, and is not done. The development time for several versions of a vaccine for the coronavirus were far shorter than what is normal for such an effort. Even with that short time frame, politicians, as well as the general public demonstrated impatience with the process, thinking scientists should have had a solution, in this case a working and FDA-approved vaccine, within a very short time after the need arose.
The peer review process is designed to weed out ideas with inadequate evidence, and ensure the data presented does actually lead to the proposed outcome. It is good to remember the words of Carl Sagan how “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Many people in the political realm make claims without accompanying evidence. At the same time they fail to recognize the need for adequate evidence to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of a health intervention. Scientific rigor demands evidence collected with great care to ensure there are no mistakes.
In science education, particularly in support of the Next Generation Science Standards, there is a premium placed on student gathering of evidence, reasoning about the evidence, and communicating evidence-based explanations in their explorations of phenomena. To demonstrate the necessity of teaching science in this manner, all one has to do is read the news to see how evidence, or the lack thereof, is used to justify either a conclusion or the usefulness of a solution. To read and interpret the news critically is an important skill, which science education is well placed to address.
Along with news of politics and pandemic, we also read about the discoveries of the collisions of distant black holes and neutron stars sending out waves of gravity detectable with our most sensitive instruments. There is confidence in these results from the many years of work in developing theories — and the hardware — to explore these extreme events. The explanations of what is taking place is also not static, undergoing constant refinement as new evidence comes to light. Research does not stop just because we arrive at a logical explanation or solution. Nor does it stop because the result is popular and people think further research is unnecessary because they already heard there was a solution. Ideas and theories are frequently discarded if new evidence no longer fits the model.
Both politics and science are at times messy endeavors. Science however, more often reveals beauty and elegance in the universe. And while it might not always get it right the first time, we are assured when applied judiciously, science is a self-correcting endeavor.
This post originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific