By Chad Orzel
Discover your inner scientist! Thinking like a scientist in solving your problems gives you the opportunity to approach the world in a fundamentally optimistic and enpowering way with the idea that the world is comprehensible; scientific thinkers know that questions have answers, and that we can find those answers. In a deep way, that’s as optimistic as you can get.
When I first brought home my iPad, before I even got it out of the box, my (then) three-year-old daughter spotted it and announced “I want to play Angry Birds!” I was a little bemused by the idea that their marketing reached even the pre-school set, but not unhappy. After all, Angry Birds is a great way to learn about science.
I’m not talking about studying the physics of birds flung from slingshots, but the process of the game: to succeed at Angry Birds, you need to think like a scientist. When confronted with a new level, you need to look closely at the arrangement of pigs and blocks and other elements, to determine exactly what you need to accomplish. Then you develop a mental model of what will happen when you start launching birds: “If I hit this block with the yellow bird, it will topple that block onto the pigs…” Then you test your model directly, and see how well your prediction matches (videogame) reality. If you’ve guessed correctly, you devastate the pigs, and move on to the next level; if your model was incorrect or incomplete, you refine it and try again.
That’s as nice an encapsulation of the process of science as you’ll find anywhere, and it’s wildly popular. Angry Birds is one of the most successful video-game franchises of all time, downloaded over a billion times as of early 2013, and boasting in excess of 260 million monthly users. It’s simple enough that a three-year-old can figure out the basics, and complex enough to be addictive even for adults. I’ve lost hours to it myself.
The popularity of Angry Birds gives the lie to the common notion that science is something arcane and esoteric, beyond the comprehension of ordinary humans. Even people who openly state that they can’t understand and don’t like science play Angry Birds, and in the process, use exactly the same bag of mental tricks that scientists do as they try to figure out the basic rules governing the universe. Hundreds of millions of people devote part of their idle time each month to thinking like scientists, just in the pursuit of one silly videogame. All of us, from three-year olds on up through adults, have a scientist inside us.
Look, Think, Test, Tell
That may seem like a strange thing to claim—when I say that everyone has an inner scientist, I get skeptical reactions from people who say “I never use any of the stuff I learned in science class.” This confuses two different meanings of “science:” one is the product of science, the body of knowledge about particles, molecules, animals, planets and stars that people memorize in science classes, and the other is the process of science. That process is, to my mind, the more fundamental and important definition of science.
Stripped down to its essential core, the process
of science consists of four steps:
Look at the world around you, and identify some phenomenon you would like to understand.
Think of a model that might explain how and why that phenomenon occurs in terms of general rules about how the universe operates.
Test your theory with further observations, and carry out experiments to see if the predictions of your model agree with reality.
Tell everybody you know your proposed explanation and the results of your tests.
Clearing a level on Angry Birds requires you to go through the steps of the scientific process. You look at the level, think about a possible tactic for wiping out the pigs, and test your model by launching birds at your selected target. And if you’re playing with friends or kids, you tell them how you did it, and share your results with other people via high score lists and other social features.
This four-step process is the best method we have for generating reliable knowledge about the world. It’s also one of the most fundamentally human activities there is, and this process and its products, for good or ill, has made us the dominant species on the planet.
Discovering Your Inner Scientist
Ironically, even people who consciously reject the thought of doing science themselves spend a good deal of time thinking like scientists. Scientific thinking is essential to many popular hobbies and pastimes. Whatever you do to unwind, it almost certainly draws on the same bag of mental tricks used by successful scientists. If you collect stamps or coins as a hobby, you’re making use of the same impulse that helped Charles Darwin to develop the theory of evolution. Other thinkers had speculated about evolution before Darwin, but years of collecting gave him a mountain of evidence to support his theory, and helped make him an iconic figure in the history of science. If you like to play card games, you use the same inference process that led Vera Rubin and other astronomers to the realization that the universe contains vast amounts of stuff that emits no light. Astronomers can’t directly observe this “dark matter,” but they deduce its presence from the imprint it leaves on the light we do see, in the same way that a bridge player uses bids and conventions to determine who has the ace of spades. If you do crossword puzzles to relax, you’re using the trial-and-error technique that led the founders of quantum mechanics to develop the strangest and most successful theory in the history of physics. Physicists didn’t leap directly to the idea of material objects behaving like waves, but were led to it by many smaller discoveries, in the same way that a crossword aficionado pieces together a multi-word answer from the simpler words that cross it.
And if you play sports to blow off steam, you know the importance of communication with your teammates. Contrary to myth, most scientific progress is made not by lone geniuses but by groups of scientists working together. Whether in small labs about the size of a basketball team or in thousand-member collaborations, communication is as essential in science as on the court.
Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist tells these stories, and many others, to make clear that even people who don’t understand the products of science make use of the process of science. Not only can you think like a scientist, you already do, in pursuit of fun and relaxation.
Why Should You Think
Like a Scientist?
Even if everyone can think like a scientist, though, that doesn’t explain why you should. After all, as a citizen of a modern society, you don’t have to work out how to make an iPad and program video games—somebody else has already done that. You could just pick up a tablet, download an app, and kick back playing Angry Birds while resting on the laurels of past generations of scientists. You don’t need to be a scientist to make it in the world today. So why should you bother thinking scientifically?
On a practical level, making use of your inner scientist can make you more effective and efficient at work. But the best reason to think like a scientist is that the scientific approach to the world is fundamentally optimistic and empowering.
It may seem odd to call science “optimistic,” given frequent news stories about scientists saying we’ll all be killed by drug-resistant bacteria, crushed by flaming rocks from outer space, or roasted by global warming. I’m talking about a more abstract form of optimism, though. The scientific way of looking at the world is founded on the idea that the world is comprehensible; scientific thinkers know that questions have answers, and that we can find those answers. In a very deep way, that’s as optimistic as you can get.
Science is also empowering, because it gives us the tools we need to find answers to all sorts of questions. There are few things more frustrating than trying to deal with some problem and running into people who regard “I don’t know” as a final answer. Scientific thinking turns “I don’t know” into “I don’t know… yet.” The process of science lets you find answers to just about any question you might ask.
Your inner scientist is helpful not only for abstract matters of science, but almost any problem. If you are comfortable with the process of science, you can confront any situation with confidence. Even relatively mundane problems—figuring out how to use a new piece of computer software, or deciding what process to follow for some task at work—can be addressed scientifically. You never need to stop doing something because you don’t know some fact, or don’t know how something works. You can figure out whatever you need to know.
If you know how to use your inner scientist, you never need to settle for ignorance. And that’s an incredibly powerful tool you can use to make your life better. It doesn’t get more optimistic and empowering than that. All of us, from toddlers on, have a scientist inside us, and if you can recognize and use that fact, your inner scientist will change your world for the better.