Scientific?

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What does the word “scientific” mean? Clearly, “scientific” is derived from “science,” and the latter can be defined as a process for testing and evaluating hypotheses through controlled experiments that can be verified or copied by others. To put it in really simple terms, something is scientific if it is testable and repeatable.

While testability and repeatabilityi may be key elements in science, there are many things that we take for granted are “scientific” that have not truly been tested or repeated. Often, it does not cross our minds that a given statement hasn’t tested: the statement sounds scientific so it must be scientific. For example, I used to work at a museum that was located in an old warehouse. Some of the girls who worked at the register were certain that the museum was haunted. There were a few (trivial) things that were often cited as evidence of ghostly activity. One such instance was when a crown fell off of a mannequin by itself. The mannequin was of a pirate with a hook hand and the crown was a play crown. The purpose of both objects what so guests could have their picture taken with the pirate while wearing a crown. Anyway, I was excitedly told that someone had left the crown on the pirate’s hook (his left hand was a hook) and that the crown had fallen off of the hook all by itself. The event had even been caught on a surveillance camera, so now the girls had video proof that something was haunting the museum.

The thing is, the pirate’s hook curved downward. It was not pointed up, like a coat hook mounted on a wall, thus the crown did not jump up over the tip of the hook to fall down. Rather, the crown had been placed on the back of the hook, the convex curve of the hook, and had simply slid off. True, no one was around the crown when it fell, neither was their any disturbance, such as a breeze or pressure change from a door opening, but it was still simple to explain the crown falling as the crown gradually sliding off the back of the hook.

What especially struck me about this instance was the way the girls challenged me to “science it away.” True, I was able to come up with a logical explanation that invoked scientific knowledge, but I did not actually put the crown on the hook and watch to see if it would fall. In other words, I did not actually test or repeat my explanation. Thus, was my explanation truly scientific, or was it mere speculation? Strictly speaking, it was probably the latter. However, the word “science” is often applied more broadly than strictly “testing of hypotheses.” Rather, “science” often means “something that uses knowledge obtained by science,” regardless of whether the scientific explanation has actually been tested.

Take the example of a raccoon washing its food. Technically, the raccoon behavior is called “dousing.” There has been a lot of scientific speculation about the purpose of dousing, some of which have since been proven to be false. First, there is the myth that raccoons douse their food because they have no salivary glands. The idea is that the food must be wet in order for a raccoon to swallow it, but without salivary glands, the raccoon’s food will remain dry, so it must get its food wet first. Raccoons can be observed to drool just as any other mammal can, so this explanation is manifestly false, yet for a long time, it was common knowledge that raccoons lack salivary glands.ii

More recently, the habit of dousing food has been explain as a simple, repetitive behavior. Raccoons have very sensitive hands, which they regularly use to explore and feel the world around them. In fact, raccoons are known to probe for food in the water, feeling for food items below the surface. That is part of the explanation for the washing myth: a raccoon shuffling it hands underwater looks a bit like it is washing something. However, dousing is the habit of placing food in water and working it around in its hands, so it is not simply finding food in water. Why do raccoons place food in water and feel it up before eating it? It is described simply as behavioral: since their hands are so sensitive, raccoons are just in the habit of feeling their food with their hands before eating it, and getting the food wet helps with its tactile abilities. In short, dousing today is no considered to be necessary, but rather a habit that raccoons regularly repeat.

Now comes the big question: is the behavioral explanation for dousing a scientific explanation? As far as I can tell, there is no research to back up this idea. Sure, it is promoted in several places,iii but I have not seen a reference to a study that actually tests the idea that dousing is a result of raccoon behavior or instinct. Thus, if we want to claim that science describes things that have been tested and repeated, then the behavioral explanation for dousing is unscientific, and will remain so until it is actually tested. On the other hand, if science means giving an explanation using scientific knowledge, then the behavioral explanation for dousing is scientific, since repetitive behavior has been studied in other animals and because we know that raccoons are not dousing their food because they lack salivary glands.

The take away from these examples is that the word “science” has a rather loose definition. Sure, the scientific method is pretty rigorous, and most common ideas in science are things that have been tested and repeated often. However, there are other ideas that are simply taken for granted because they “make sense” given current scientific knowledge, even though they have not yet been tested. These untested scientific ideas are part of the reason that science can, and does, change, because eventually these ideas will be tested and odds are that some of them are shown to be false.

~Written By Steven King

iIt should be noted that testability and repeatability are by no means the only important foundational concepts in science. Other foundational concepts are logic, deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, and observation, so while testability and repeatability are key elements, they by no means completely describe whether or not something is scientific.

iiRobert Park (2000) Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness to Fraud, Oxford, New York, New York, pg. 43

iiiFor example, https://animals.net/raccoon/ and http://www.aaanimalcontrol.com/Professional-Trapper/raccoonfoodwash.html, both retrieved on August 1, 2019.