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How we think

My mother-in-law was driving our family back from a day trip to Joshua Tree National Park (awesome, by the way, and the night sky view there is spec-tac-ular), when suddenly we heard a “thup-thup-thupping” sound coming from beneath the car. My mother-in-law had blown two tires in the past few months, so her first thought was “oh no, is the tire flat again?”

But wait, there was another possibility. The road was kind of rough; maybe the sound was just the road surface? My mother-in-law switched lanes, and voila, the sound went away. So, not the tire, just the rough road surface.

Ok, so this story was kind of boring, but it struck me that switching lanes to see if the problem was the road or the tire was a very natural way to find the truth. It sure sounds natural enough that the story is really boring.

But it’s also a scientific way of going about the problem. Science isn’t some sort of hard, unnaturally convoluted way of looking at the world. It actually comes to us instinctively in a lot of situations. Just think about some possible scenarios about what might be happening, and then test them in a way that lets you tell the difference. The only extra steps for ‘science’ are these two: get others to try the same test to make sure it works, and try other tests just to make sure this one test wasn’t a fluke. In my opinion, that’s the scientific method, not that horribly nitpicky garbage they feed school kids about “hypothesis-test-conclusion.” That’s not how science is done; that’s how science is written about in retrospect, because it’s nice and organized.

Science isn’t hard, and it comes naturally to all of us as the best way to figure out the real, hard truth. If we all recognized that a little bit more, maybe there would be more trust in scientists and more kids who get excited about the parts of science that matter: blowing sh*t up.