When you think of a scientist, you probably imagine a person dressed in a white lab coat, wearing thick glasses and adorned with white, straggly hair. Perhaps you think of Albert Einstein. The reality is quite different; scientists, overall, do not conform to this stereotype. They do not have a particular uniform, and they do not wear a badge. What makes someone a scientist?
The answer is in the way they think. They employ “the scientific method”. But what is the scientific method? The concept really boils down to a way of formulating ideas and testing them; a way of explaining the world through systematic observation and hypothesis testing. In short, a way of telling reality from fantasy.
You start with a question about the world around you. This may have come from your observations. You come up with a statement about this question, and this is known as a hypothesis. You predict what you would see if your hypothesis were correct. From there, you design and conduct an experiment to see if these predictions hold true. You then interpret the results to see if they support or disagree with your hypothesis. Finally, you report your experiment in full and submit it to review by other scientists.
The thing is, you can only support your hypothesis, not prove it. There may have been errors in your method. You may have got lucky even. However, because people can read your methods, they can repeat the experiment. Repeated success means the results are reliable.
Over time, more support may be collected, and your hypothesis might be accepted as a correct theory. That gravity makes objects of mass attracted to each other (like Newton’s proverbial apple falling to the earth) is one such theory, supported by mountains of scientific evidence.
Evidence is what it is about. That is at the core of the thinking. Theories need to be testable. Interpretation alone is not enough. Ideas and theories are not enough. Skeptical thinking doesn’t cover it. To be truly scientific you must imagine what a theory predicts, ask what evidence for that might look like, and then demand evidence that experiments actually do show it.
At the core of the scientific thinker is a rational process to discover the likely truth of the matter, supported by evidence. That is what makes a scientist, a scientist.
We can all do this, we just need to ask questions, and to think about how we might answer them in a reliable way. Do this, and the climate of uncertainty can be lifted on a great many issues. We can all be scientists at heart.