How science works? – The big picture

How science works

Science is an abstract word. I am sure you have an idea of what science is. But can you explain exactly how science works?

The first idea that came to mind is: science is done by scientists. Ok, but what exactly a scientist do? Because if you search on google images the word scientist, you will see an endless list of pictures of people with white lab coats and blue gloves.

But this stereotype only represents a very small branch of science. Experimental biologists and chemists. As you can imagine, not all scientists work with test tubes in a lab.

A scientist is any person who conducts scientific research on a specific topic to understand how nature works and push the boundaries of human knowledge. In fact, the most genuine skill to become a scientist is the use of the scientific method. Not a lab coat. Not a PhD.

Where scientific research takes place

Nowadays, scientific research is mostly carried out in research groups within universities and research institutions, private and public alike. You certainly have heard about universities like Stanford University, the University of Oxford, or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). And research institutions like NASA in the United States, Max Planck Society in Germany, CNRS in France, or CSIC in Spain. Indeed, most of the countries have national-level institutions that group diverse research centers and laboratories around a branch of knowledge.

In some highly relevant fields, there are even international agencies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), or UNESCO. But at the very end, the research, the experiments themselves are performed in all those small research groups disseminated in many different centers around the world.

What scientists do

These research groups perform experiments following the scientific method and report publicly their results. They also replicate results from other groups to confirm or challenge their scientific assumptions until the scientific community reaches a consensus.

The scientific community is all those researchers who have contributed to the field by publicly reporting their results. This public reporting process is carried out via peer-reviewed publication.

How science is evaluated

Peer-reviewed publication is the tool we have to evaluate the quality of a research study. Once a scientist or a group of scientists have the results of a study, they write a scientific article explaining: the context and motivation of their study, the detailed method they used to perform the study, the results, and the discussion.

The first version of this report is called manuscript and it is submitted to a journal where reviewers, other scientists in the same field, evaluate if the methods used for the study follow the scientific method and if the conclusions are within the scope of the methods employed.

Reviewers do not judge the results. They only comment objectively on the quality, significance, and originality of the results.

For example, I am a reviewer for several journals in the fields of biomechanics, computational mechanics, and tissue mechanics. I have reviewed studies of scientists from North and South America, Europe, and Asia. As a reviewer, I check that the methods they have employed follow the scientific standards and that there are no flaws in their experiments based on my knowledge on the topic.

What we call science

Once a manuscript is accepted, it becomes a scientific study published in a peer-reviewed journal, also known as paper. These papers are the basic blocks of science. Over time, the best studies/papers are replicated and used as the base for further studies becoming common knowledge (consensus among the scientific community).

This knowledge is the state-of-the-art until someone proved it wrong or have a better theory to explain the same phenomenon. This is a very important point to understand about science. There is no experiment to demonstrate that something is right, you can only prove that something is wrong.

This is how science evolves.

One day, I will write a post about the shortcomings and limitations of the peer-review process. However, for now, this is the best tool we have to evaluate research and the most accepted way to communicate science.

Your turn

What do you think about how science works?

Leave us your opinion in the comments.

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Author: Enrique Morales Orcajo, PhD

I am an engineer, scientist, and traveler based in Europe. I write about how to consume and digest scientific studies in a practical and efficient way. My goal is to help you make more sound scientific judgments.

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