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The Narrative of Science: A Practitioner’s Perspective


The pace of scientific inquiry appears to be constantly accelerating, and open access to cutting-edge research is a single web search away for anyone. Despite these advances, public antagonism towards scientific principles has increased. Social media is awash with arguments over extreme claims followed by citations to literature ranging from articles at top journals to pseudoscientific bunkum. It seems that scientific inquiry is just another cudgel wielded by internet sophists, trolls, and AI bots to support any position, no matter how absurd.

As a practitioner of science, I find that the popular consciousness has misunderstood how science works. Understanding how scientists use observations to draw conclusions, and the narrative language with which these observations and conclusions are communicated, can bring clarity and rationality to these conversations. Terms like “law” and “theory” carry a distinct meaning in science that is often misconstrued in other contexts, and the empirical strength of a scientific theory cannot be easily assessed without additional investigation. The limits of empiricism are often under- or over-stated, giving the false impression that scientific knowledge is incompatible with religious truth. In my work, I find that scientific exploration’s ability to reveal the incredible beauty of the natural world often goes overlooked. By exploring these perceptual differences, popular culture can come to a greater understanding of how scientific inquiry operates, why science and religion are not mutually exclusive, and ways in which we scientists can better share the natural beauty explored by our discipline.

Scientific Terms: Laws and Theories

Science is often viewed as a massive compendium of infallible knowledge, an encyclopedia of incontrovertible truths. When someone claims a statement is “unscientific”, it is implied that the statement is incompatible with some aspect of “science.” Scientists can be seen as stacking their personal beliefs on top of this compendium, so long as it meets the approval of their club of colleagues. It follows that someone could view science as a post-modern gnostic religion, with hidden knowledge privy to a select few. Such warped perspectives cultivate distrust in scientific findings, especially when these findings violate a strongly held belief. This distrust was especially visible among anti-vaccination advocates during the COVID19 pandemic. For practitioners, science operates differently. Rather, the field of science resembles a gladiatorial free-for-all. For instance, a scholar’s eminence or association with a tight-knit group may not prevent scrutiny from peers in the publication process. Science is the process of making an educated assumption, running tests, and re-evaluating that assumption. At any point, a test or experiment may need to be scrapped and started over, through self-criticism or challenges by peers. At its best, science is a dynamic, ever-changing, and messy discipline, where anyone may challenge any idea at any time. Scientific knowledge is not the remit of a select few; instead, scientists ideally seek to make their findings known to all.

Broadly speaking, the contributions of science can be broken into laws and theories. A scientific law serves a single purpose: it predicts the result of a set of initial conditions. For example, Newton’s second law accepts the initial conditions of a set of objects and predicts their future motion. However, this law offers no explanation for how or why objects behave in this manner. Scientific laws predict the “what”, but do not describe the “how” or “why”. To answer the latter, a scientific theory is supplied as the most logical explanation for why certain phenomena are observed. The power of a scientific law is dictated by the accuracy and generality of its predictions. By and large, scientific laws remain consistent, albeit with potential exceptions. Theories, on the other hand, are always on trial. Scientists favor a theory based on how well it matches observational data and how it coheres with, or expands on, existing scientific laws. Any theory can be overturned at any time when presented with contradictory reproducible observations. This vulnerability might be seen as a weakness; however, in practice this organic process of advancing science guards against scientists holding to unprovable ideas as dogma.

The strength of a theory can also be judged by its ability to predict the outcome of an experiment ahead of time. For example, the famous quantum theorist Paul Dirac used his eponymous equation to predict the existence of antimatter in 1928, which was confirmed by Carl Anderson in 19321. Dmitri Mendeleev boldly left blank spaces in his first periodic table published in 1871, predicting that missing elements would one day be found, and indeed they were2. Such efforts require both boldness and humility from scientists. Even when a theory is later proven to be incorrect, it can still form the basis for scientific advancement. Antoine Lavoisier could not have established the discipline of chemistry as we know it today without relying on now-disproven alchemical theories. In turn, Lavoisier’s own adherence to phlogiston theory (the idea that there exists a unique element released during chemical combustion) has itself been superseded3. AI is in a privileged position in this regard: it can itself be theorized about but can also be used as a tool to theorize about other disciplines.

Theories grow stronger with corroborating findings, but a theory’s veracity should never be viewed as certain. Theories like the big bang theory, evolutionary theory, and atomic theory are built upon many decades of data and observation. If one wishes to challenge such theories, the heavy burden of proof rests upon the scientist to present dissenting data as well as their own theory that better explains past observations. Many challengers have entered the arena against these theories in particular, but all have been defeated. When someone states that a scientific claim is “just a theory”, it cannot be determined whether the claim might be trusted or dismissed without exploring how strongly the scientific community validates or rejects the theory. The scientific meaning of “theory” is discrete from a popular context where one might use the word to mean “hunch” or “guess”.

The Limits of Empiricism and the Role of Religion

The power of empiricism and scientific inquiry lies in its ever-expanding purview, of which anyone can partake by deeply studying a topic and proposing novel ideas. The scientific process inherently resists dogma, constructing its argumentation on reproducible observation. However, reproducible observation is insufficient to account for all knowledge. On one hand, empiricism is distinct from math because math does not require observation. Math instead relies on provable extensions of fundamental axioms. On the other hand, scientific disciplines exist on a continuum of empirical power based on observations of the natural world.

A scientific discipline like physics or chemistry is called “hard” if observations are almost exactly reproducible and there is little doubt as to the objectivity and methodological soundness of resulting theories. By contrast, scientific disciplines such as psychology and economics are called “soft” if observations are not as reproducible (especially over time, language, ethnicity, geography, etc.), and very different theories may be drawn from the same set of observations. Interestingly, machine learning and AI originated from “hard” sciences such as signal processing, but today behave more as a “soft” science (where reproducibility can be a challenge). The distinction between “hard” and “soft” on the continuum of empiricism should not be interpreted to reflect a subject’s difficulty, impact, or legitimacy. In fact, “hard” disciplines often have an easier path to demonstrating causal relationships and may deal with fewer unknown, unmeasurable, or confounding factors.

I believe that empiricism cannot be the only path for approaching truth, as it cannot ever claim complete certainty about anything. Religious truths operate in a sphere separate from empirical observation. While religious texts may contain ancient claims about the natural world that do not align with current scientific consensus, religious virtue ethics excel where empiricism makes no claim: rather than describing how our universe is, envisioning how it ought to be. Empirical evidence is rightly used to inform important policy decisions, but science by itself has no prescription for how we ought to respond to its observations. Faith, ethics, and religion fill this void. Many great minds have dwelled on the points of dissent between science and religion, sometimes leading them to discard one point of view altogether. Zealotry lies at both extremes. I view science and religion as complementary, approaching a shared reality from different starting points and reaching conclusions by different means.

The contributions of René Descartes are an excellent illustration of the complementary nature of science and religion. His first name means “rebirth,” and he contributed to the rebirth of scientific inquiry in the seventeenth century. Descartes is known for the scientific method, which describes the process of experimentation and observation scientists still follow today. Although Descartes laid down the basis of rationalism advocated by philosophers like Baruch Spinoza (who was Jewish) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (a Lutheran who worked for Lutheran-Catholic reconciliation)4, Descartes was also a devout Roman Catholic who sought to prove the existence of God. His epistemology reflects his doubts about conclusions drawn from sensory observation alone. He writes: “Whatever I have accepted until now as most true has come to me through my senses. But occasionally I have found that they have deceived me, and it is unwise to trust completely those who have deceived us even once.”5.

The Beauty of Scientific Inquiry and the Natural World

When beholding a magnificent sunset or surveying a vista from the summit of a mountain, it is easy to affirm the beauty of the natural world. Such experiences can inspire wonder – a feeling of interconnectedness to one another and our surroundings. One might feel similar awe when watching passionate educators like Carl Sagan or David Attenborough narrate the interplay of cosmological or ecological phenomena. I often feel this sense of wonder when working at my desk, and it is one of the great pleasures of a career in science. Between tedious experiments or bouts of laborious coding, occasionally a ray of illumination will shine through, leaving me shocked at the beauty of the natural world. I suspect many scientists have similar experiences: I can imagine the astounded shock of Antoine van Leeuwenhoek when he first observed through his microscope the rich ecosystem within a single drop of pond water6.

While such insights are not purposefully hidden, few may appreciate them. They are like an esoteric strain of jazz: it may be audible and available to all, but only a handful of attuned (and perhaps specially trained) individuals will recognize its complexity and beauty. The physicist E.M. Purcell shared the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1952 for the co-discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in liquids and solids. NMR has since become a foundational technique for analytical and physical chemists, and is the basis for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In his Nobel Prize lecture, Purcell writes7:

Professor Bloch has told you how one can detect the precession of the magnetic nuclei in a drop of water. Commonplace as such experiments have become in our laboratories, I have not yet lost a feeling of wonder, and of delight, that this delicate motion should reside in all the ordinary things around us, revealing itself only to him who looks for it. I remember, in the winter of our first experiments, just seven years ago, looking on snow with new eyes. There the snow lay around my doorstep – great heaps of protons quietly precessing in the earth’s magnetic field. To see the world for a moment as something rich and strange is a private reward of many a discovery.

Purcell’s words are a great reminder that the private reward of scientific discovery can motivate further inquiry, even in times of resistance and failure. The reward of science is not in manipulating thought or playing the game to achieve fortune or status. Instead, it is in the joy of discovery, and sharing that private reward with the whole world.


Media dialogue can abuse scientific inquiry, as a brief scroll of almost any contemporary social media news feed can demonstrate. Trustworthy and untrustworthy theories alike can be misappropriated to back up dubious claims or ideologies. The way science is popularly discussed and used can lead to misconceptions about how science is carried out and can make false enemies of science and religion. Amid this turmoil, the awe and wonder of scientific discovery should not be overlooked. Instead, leveraging this joy to share about scientific discoveries can reawaken our culture to the wonders of science. The narrative a scientist uses regarding their study, versus public perception, can be very different. Yet, the narrative of science speaks for itself when scientists listen to it over the clickbait distortions of complex studies. The story of the universe, discovered through a microscope or telescope, on a computer screen or in our own backyards, is a narrative worth telling.


Thanks so much to my wife Melody for workshopping this piece and helping me refine several ideas shared here. Thanks to Haley Griese for her edits and helpful feedback.


Marcus Schwarting

Is a PhD candidate in computer science at the University of Chicago, where his research focuses on applying deep learning to important challenges in computational chemistry, materials science, and spectroscopy. Marcus graduated from the University of Louisville in 2018 with degrees in mathematics and chemical engineering. After working for four years at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Argonne National Laboratory, Marcus began his PhD studies in 2020 under Dr. Ian Foster.

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