I have read some critical comments about Bill Nye the Science Guy. The comments essentially stated that Bill Nye is not a real scientist because he doesn’t have a Ph.D., just a B.S. in mechanical engineering. This is a common belief I find among people who have not pursued a scientific career. These people think that to be scientists, and think like scientists, you need decades of study and work in labs or in the field operating expensive pieces of equipment and researching some important things.
These beliefs are wrong. Not only is Bill Nye a true scientist, but also you can be one too even if you have not pursued a scientific career.
The only thing you need to do to be a scientist is to follow the scientific method when answering questions. And what questions am I talking about? They don’t have to be complicated questions regarding the inner workings of genes, the cure for a disease, how stars explode, or how to classify fossils. The questions can be very simple, but they have to be scientific. In fact that is the first step of the scientific method:
Step 1: Ask a scientific question.
Scientific questions are those that pertain to the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us. Questions that cannot generate testable answers are not scientific questions.
Examples of scientific and non-scientific questions:
“Does God exist?” is not a scientific question because there is no way to test it, but “How many people believe God exists?” or “How has the belief in God affected society?” are scientific questions, because people can be polled and the effects of believing in a God can be evaluated.
“Is killing wrong?” is not a scientific question because it involves a value judgement that also often depends on the situation, but “How many people think killing is wrong and in which situations?” is a scientific question.
“Is this lake big?” is not a scientific question because terms such as “lake” or “big” mean different things to different people, but “What is the area (or volume) occupied by this body of water and how does it compare to others?” is a scientific question.
Other examples of scientific questions are: “Can plants grow under green light?”, “Do ice cubes melt slower in salt water?”, “Does the size of a gummy bear affect how fast it will melt in a microwave oven?”, etc.
Once you have asked a scientific question, you have to propose a possible answer to said question (a hypothesis). But before you proceed to the next step, you should try to check whether your question has been answered by someone else somewhere. Examine their methodology and their conclusions to see if you agree with them.
Step 2: Propose an answer (a hypothesis) to your question.
The key thing to remember here is that the hypothesis that you propose has to be falsifiable. This means that if your hypothesis is false, you have to be able to demonstrate that that indeed is the case. An example of a non-falsifiable hypothesis is:
Wood floats and steel sinks because wood has more “floatability” than steel. Here “flotability” is just a restatement of the very effect we are trying to explain.
A falsifiable hypothesis would be:
Steel sinks because it is denser than water and wood floats because it is less dense. Here density (weight divided by volume) is a quantity that can be measured and modified to evaluate the hypothesis.
Step 3: Devise a way to test these scientific hypotheses through observation or experiments.
The best experiments or observations are those that provide a yes or no answer. If there are several variables that can affect the results of your experiment, you have to control them before any meaningful results can be obtained. This is why scientists often use “controls” in their experiments. For example, if you are trying to figure out at what temperature a liquid will boil, you also have to be mindful of the pressure at which you are heating it and the content of other substances dissolved in the liquid. Water will boil at different temperatures on a mountain compared to sea level. Salt water will boil at a different temperature than fresh water.
Also be mindful of your biases! If you feel very strongly about the hypothesis that you are testing, you should probably ask someone else to perform the experiment or the observations for you to avoid experimenter or observer bias.
Step 4: Evaluate the results of your experiment or the observations you made and reach a conclusion.
Try to be razor sharp in your conclusion. The hypothesis is either true or false. Do not fall in love with a hypothesis. Unless there was a mistake in the measurements or observations, or new knowledge became available that would have affected your procedures, if a hypothesis proven false, it is false. Do not move the goalposts! This is what pseudoscientists do when their pet explanations are proven false over and over.
Most people who write about the scientific method stop at step 4, but in my opinion, one more step is required. This step is the most crucial and most difficult, and also the reason I consider Bill Nye to be more of a scientist than many scientists even if he doesn’t have a Ph.D.
Step 5: Being a scientist is not merely applying the scientific method a few times or applying it selectively to some things and not to others. Being a scientist means incorporating this method into your daily life, into the way you think, into the way you select which beliefs to hold, and in fact into your very world view.
You will be surprised to learn that quite a number of scientists (all with a Ph.D.) that apply the scientific method on a regular basis to their research at work are incapable of applying it to aspects of their personal lives or even their beliefs. I have met scientists who believe in creationism, astrology, bogus alternative therapies, and many other things that have been tested and disproven. And the irony is that many of the scientific principles that have been used to demonstrate that these things are false are the same principles that these scientists apply in their labs in their experiments! Such is the complexity of the human mind.
This is why I believe Mr. Nye is a real scientist, and why you can be one too. Now get out there and be a scientist!
Photo of Bill Nye photo by Paul Antico, SFU - University Communications, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.