How Scientific Ideas Change

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

How do scientific ideas change? Where do they come from? Learn how those ideas spread among scientists, and then among the general public. Take a quiz to see how well the ideas in these lessons have spread.

What is a Scientific Idea?

Science is all about understanding how the world works, but it is also a process. Science is a systematic way of observing the world and doing experiments to understand its structure and behavior. So a scientific idea is an explanation for how something works, or the truth about some aspect of the world, that was figured out using the scientific process.

Overview of the scientific process.
Overview of the scientific process

Gathering New Evidence

Scientific ideas are far more reliable and more likely to be true than other kinds of ideas, because they're based on evidence. Coming up with new scientific ideas is all about gathering that evidence. For example, we used to think that light was was wave. Then Albert Einstein and others collected evidence that light can also act like a particle. It turned out that light was both a wave and a particle, and it can act like both in different situations, but it was only through gathering more evidence that we were able to figure that out.

Scientists are all about collecting data
Scientists are all about collecting data

Scientific ideas come from evidence, but it takes brilliant thinking to imagine them. New ideas come from collecting evidence and looking at it to figure it out, but often it isn't as simple as it sounds. Some of the biggest scientific leaps in history were made by people who looked at the same evidence and drew conclusions that nobody else had thought of, but which did a better job of explaining the data. For example, the theory of relativity showed how Newton's laws of gravity were only a simplification, and don't work at really high speeds. The equations for relativity were not obvious, and so it took a lot of creative thinking to come up with.

Albert Einstein

Collaboration and Debate

But even when you have evidence and are able to explain that evidence with clever thinking, the ideas aren't guaranteed to be accepted. For example, the idea that earthquakes were caused by gigantic tectonic plates moving across the surface of the earth was rejected and ridiculed. Only when evidence became stronger did people start to accept it.

So how does this happen? Well, through collaboration and debate. People come work together to collect new evidence, and convince each other of a new idea through their interactions. Scientist can be very argumentative, and have strong opinions, so debate is an extremely useful way that scientific ideas can be challenged. Ultimately they come to be widely agreed upon.

Scientists also use a method called peer review. When they complete papers, presenting new ideas and evidence, those papers have to be read and critiqued by other scientists before they can be published. This weeds out a lot of bad quality research and builds on consensus in the community.

Putting Science Into Practice

Most scientists are convinced of new and changing ideas if enough evidence is provided because science is based around evidence, and so that is what scientists respond to best. But what about the general public? Or people who aren't research scientists themselves? How quickly the public adopt new scientific ideas can have major consequences.

For example, climate change being caused by humans is widely accepted in the scientific community, especially among experts in the field. Yet large numbers of people (at least in the US) still do not believe that humans are the cause, partly because of the influence of party politics. This makes it less likely that people take action to counteract the effect, and could be very damaging to the world.

We also observe the opposite problem. A paper was once released (which later turned out to be fraudulent) suggesting that vaccines might cause autism. This led large numbers of people to not vaccinating their children. Thanks to media hysteria, the public accepted a scientific idea that was far from proven and did not have acceptable evidence. By the time the data was found to be false and the author's conflicts of interest were discovered, it was too late and the message was already out.

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