The word science comes from Latin scientia, from scire, meaning "know."
This makes sense, but we have to look into the cultural representation of science to fully understand it, and to understand how we misuse the term.
The problem is that we often think that KNOW = FACT. This is rarely the case.
You know information that you have gathered from your environment. These things that you know may or may not be true. If the knowledge and information is thoroughly tested and holds up to scrutiny, it might be considered a fact. Any knowledge that we have can also be an opinion, or an interpretation, or (hopefully not) a misunderstanding.
Science is simply a way to make sense of observations, but no matter how closely you look and how precisely you measure, we are all limited by the way we interpret data.
Think of a scientific report. It probably begins with an introduction that outlines the importance of the information to come. It might reference several other papers that have also talked about the topic, and how we know the place to start. You need some background information to appreciate the work that the author went to in order to present updated information. When this paper comes out, everyone is very excited to receive the latest knowledge. When that paper is being printed, the information it contains is at that moment the best answer to any question that current science can explore.
There are probably then a lot of data sheets and tables, followed by a strong conclusion that describes what the information means, and how it changes what we know.
But at the time you are reading the paper, there are probably a lot of people (even the authors themselves) who are looking at the question in a different way. The answers we have are always short-
lived. Any fact is only our best understanding at any given time. When something seems to make sense, we can be tempted to accept it without looking further and verifying our understanding.
Once upon a time,
We thought the Sun revolved around the Earth.
We thought the Earth was flat.
We thought barnacle geese hatched from barnacles and manatees were mermaids.
Even recently, we thought camels store water (not fat) in their humps.
We thought dinosaurs were scaly (not feathered).
We thought bats were blind (when they can totally see).
We were even taught that Pluto is a planet!
Think of all of the “debunked” myths that you have heard. At one point, it is very likely that they were accepted as facts. Thank goodness we didn’t stop with what we thought we knew; we continued to study and found that truth is not always what we are taught. We weren’t misled or deceived, we were simply learning the best available information at the time.
The foundation of science is based on The Scientific Method, which is a list of steps all researchers should follow in order to properly study a question.
1. Observation: What did you notice?
2. Question: What do you want to know about this observation?
3. Research: What do we already know?
4. Hypothesis: What do we expect to see?
5. Experiment: Test your hypothesis using a well-designed experiment that can be retested by any other scientist.
6. Results/Conclusion: determining if the hypothesis is correct and what impacted the outcome
Here’s an important follow-up:
7. Communication: Share your results! And not just the conclusion, but all of the details. We want other scientists to see if they can repeat the experiment and come up with the same results. Even if they do, they just might draw very different conclusions.
For the writer of the paper, the overall process will end at the conclusion. But an intrigued reader can go one step further. If this "conclusion" suggests a new question, we rely on the next generation of scientists to take the initiative and have the necessary curiosity to pursue the answer.
We need to reframe the notion of science as a process and not simply as a collection of facts. New discoveries and new perspectives change what we know. Since the way we interpret data comes from what we already know and the experiences that we have had, we need a lot of scientists with different backgrounds and life experiences to discuss answers and collaborate for the best interpretation.
Imagine what we would believe about the solar system if we never invented telescopes or satellites or rockets! Think of what we would think happens in our bodies if we never invented the microscope or x-rays or MRIs! We wouldn't know a planet from a star; we wouldn't even know what a cell was, let alone what they do.
It is entirely possible that we will learn something that refutes everything else we ever learned. Not likely, sure. We can be pretty confident that millennia of passing down knowledge from generation to generation has led us to some solid conclusions. Going back to our list of former facts, would you want to explore these further as a scientist? Do you think there's more to bat vision than meets the eye? Or that feathered dinosaurs are not the end of the scientific story? Do you think Pluto might really be a planet and deserves further research to make sure? That is what science is.
Today's fact might be tomorrow's myth. And that is OK!
Everything has a level of uncertainty, and it is vital that scientists 1) keep an open mind and 2) question everything!
The great thing about science is that there are always more questions to ask, more details to explore, and more answers to build upon the library of knowledge that we can all share.