Popular culture holds that science is the study of refrigerators and radios and space and all those other cool things that are pretty complicated when you break them down.
This is incorrect. Science is a method of thinking.
The scientific way of thinking brought us knowledge of refrigerators and radios and space, but those things are not science. Science is a way of looking at the world.
Humans have always tried to explain the world by making up stories to fit the observations. Some of these stories are, in retrospect, silly. Due to quirks in human minds, a thunder god feels more likely than the equations of electricity. It feels easy to imagine a thunder-god, because human brains are specialized for thinking about the motivations of people. It feels hard to learn the equations of electricity, because or minds simply aren’t built for calculus.
So we made up stories and filled them with thunder gods. We ran with them. The stories took on a life of their own, growing into religions that dictated not only thunder, but law and morality and legend.
Yet the old explanations failed to impress. Alchemy remained forever beyond our reach. Astrology could make only vague predictions. The old stories did not help us understand the world around us, they did not teach us the secrets of the universe. And yet, the stories could not be discarded. The ego of humans had given them life. Thor did not bring any understanding of the rain, but once created he could not be destroyed. Human religions gained too much power. We forgot that they were supposed to explain, not prescribe. When reality came knocking, humanity sided with their gods.
Socrates was tried for impiety. Galileo was found guilty of holding an opinion probable in the face of contrary scripture. The people who listened to reality were accused of ignoring the gods. The problem wasn’t limited to religion: politics, tradition, and the status quo all took precedence over actual existence.
Then science came. Science was a rebellion against this norm. Science was the realization that we should let reality speak for itself.
Science is about ignoring the petty squabbles of politics, religion, and tradition. It’s about stepping back from your ego and asking reality what is true. It’s about dropping all your assumptions, admitting you know nothing, and asking the universe how it works. It’s about keeping what reality enforces and discarding the rest.
Do an experiment, and then (this was novel at the time) accept the results.
That’s all science asks of you.
The early scientists realized that a human can rationalize pretty much anything in hindsight. They demanded that any model of the world make predictions in advance, and thus expose itself to falsification. Humans are great at making up excuses post facto: if you want to be taken seriously, predict something we don’t already know. If a model makes no predictions then it’s just a label for your own confusion.
A scientific theory must be falsifiable in order to be believed. Indeed, the power of a theory stems from what the theory disallows, not what it explains. A theory which explains everything explains nothing. Models of the universe need to expose themselves to reality if we are to trust them. An unfalsifiable model has closed itself off from the real world, and thus cannot say anything of relevance. It’s just a label for our ignorance.
The revelation of science was that you can’t figure out how reality works by sitting in your armchair arguing philosophy. If you want to actually understand reality, you have to go outside and ask reality.
This sounds obvious in retrospect, but it was a big deal at the time. The idea that theology and philosophy have less say over how reality works than reality itself was neigh heretical for the majority of human history.
This promotion of reality over human stories triggered the scientific revolution. It led to radios and space ships and medicine and computers. It’s one of the most important ideas in history.
Unfortunately, it’s not good enough.