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Unrestrained
 
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In the Defence of Science

28 February 2012, 15:13

I have been repeatedly reminded that “science has been wrong it the past”, that “it does not have all of the answers”, that “there is disagreement between leading scientists” and that “there is more to life than science”. Let me say, up front, that I am no scientist and that all of these statements are, in fact, correct. But, what worries me are not the statements in isolation. Rather, I am concerned about the context in which they are usually made.

 

There seem to be many people (even, alarmingly, those in power) who wish for us to take a step backwards and to give up on what we thought had been clearly won, when we emerged into the Age of Enlightenment. These people seem actively opposed to the very idea of science. Wanting to afford them the benefit of the doubt, I can only assume that it is because they have misunderstood what it is all about.

 

Although science has sprouted many branches, they are all unified by an underlying method. It is not one that is overly complicated. It is not one to be feared. Rather, it is one that is directly responsible for the fact that you are reading this article online. It is one that has stood the test of time. In summary, it goes as follows: (1) ask a question; (2) do background research; (3) construct a hypothesis; (4) test your hypothesis by doing an experiment; (5) analyse your data and draw a conclusion; and (6) report your results.

 

What the method seeks to achieve (amongst other things) is to establish a logical order that should apply to our insatiable human endeavour to explain the things that we experience in this life. It is an acknowledgement that data cannot be chosen to suit a desired conclusion and, similarly, that a conclusion cannot be drawn without supporting data. We may wish for our hypothesis to have been correct, but, if the above is followed strictly and the data does not support it, then the conclusion can only be that the hypothesis was wrong. The method also calls for results to be reported, so that others may repeat your steps to see whether they can replicate your results. This adds falsifiability to the mix, as we are no longer required to take anyone’s word, but can go and prove (or disprove) the theories for ourselves (with real-world tools at our disposal).

 

My summary, above, has been based on my basic understanding of the method and has probably omitted some further good explanations for why it is as it is. I, therefore, invite (educated) readers to fill in the blanks. In addition, it must be said that some science goes beyond a layman’s capability to test it personally. We rely, therefore, on peer review (i.e. as laymen, we take the word of the scientific community). I, for one, am not uncomfortable with this concept, as I do not believe that, as each scientist receives their qualifications, they are pulled into a secret room and briefed on the conspiracy to hide the truth from the unsuspecting public. Surely, Wikileaks would have picked up on this by now?

 

Despite this, I encounter, on an almost daily basis, people who are quite comfortable to draw conclusions without any supporting data and who even go so far as to dismiss actual scientific theories that do not match the baseless conclusions that they have drawn. It is when challenged on this that these people respond with the types of statements that I quoted in the opening paragraph. It is in this context that they use them as ammunition, to try to suggest that the scientific method is so flawed that we should prefer their word above what some of the world’s greatest minds have concluded. Might I be forgiven, then, for sticking with the scientists?

 

Having said all of this, we do face a reality in which a large number of people genuinely think that these statements lend support to their stance that science is to be distrusted. It serves a purpose, therefore, to deal with some of these statements and to hopefully clear up some of the confusion around them. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. Being more of a skeleton, I’m sure that the comments will fill-in the flesh.

 

“Science has been wrong in the past.”

 

Indeed, it has! What should we take from this fact? Well, it would do well to acknowledge, up front, that scientists remain fallible human beings, who will not always analyse their data correctly, who will not always set up their experiments perfectly and who will not always match the correct conclusion to their given set of data. In short, mistakes do happen. Sometimes, these mistakes persist for long periods of time and even result in great harm coming to people.  

 

But, science has the modesty to admit a mistake when it is identified. Theories are then revised and updated to match the more current available data. In this way, science is constantly evolving. It is not a stagnant discipline. But, that is not to say that there is nothing on which we can rely! Certain theories have stood the test of time and have been proven again and again, not only by the process of peer review, but, also by the developments that have used these theories as their foundations. So, whilst we may hypothetically acknowledge that, one day, gravity will cause everything to float away from the earth, we’re reasonably safe in assuming that it won’t and in placing priceless vases on coffee tables, for only the bloody cat to knock off.

 

In short, minor exceptions do not invalidate the rule. Highlighting mistakes in science does not entitle you to discredit the whole discipline. There are some very strong theories out there and it is not unreasonable to place reliance on them … certainly not when the alternative is to take the word of some uneducated lunatic who shouts on street corners that gravity is a lie, because “otherwise, how else would birds be able to fly?”  

 

“It does not have all of the answers.”

 

Once again, this is true and is a favourite amongst denialists. I’ll take it a step further. Science may never have all the answers! But, does this entitle us to dismiss the answers that is does have and to ignore the fact that these answers are being found exponentially? Obviously not! That would be like saying that, because I don’t know what you’re hiding behind your back, I can’t tell you that you’re wearing a red shirt. It’s absurd. Furthermore, if I beat you unconscious, I bet I’d be able to establish what you were holding. There are ways and means, you know!

 

Then, some will use this statement in support of the conclusions that they have drawn around the things that science has failed to explain. The person will offer up their conclusion, completely dispensing with the need to provide any supporting data, simply because, in their minds, a wrong answer is better than no answer. Using this ‘system’, when the question is “what’s in the locked cupboard?”, when I say “I don’t know”, they will then say “it’s filled to the brim with delicious pork sausages!” When I then ask how they know, it’s usually something along the lines of “I just know that it is and, in any case, you cannot disprove it.”

 

Well, rather then taking your word, I’d rather wait for science to cut me a key.

 

“There is disagreement between leading scientists.”

 

Well yes, there is, but there’s not as much, nor is it of the kind that you think, or have been told.

 

There are certain ‘age old’ theories that have been accepted and have been put to rest. There is no dispute around these and, in fact, you live your everyday lives on the basis of them.

 

Then, there are some very strong theories, wherein the main points have been accepted, but where there is some disagreement about the nitty-gritty of the conclusions or the applications of them. This does not mean that the entire theory fails. By way of example, it would not do to deny that our Sun is a giant ball of gas undergoing nuclear fusion, simply because some scientists disagree on the exact surface temperature of it.

 

Obviously, though, there are some (forefront) fields, in which there is major disagreement. But, in these instances, it is seldom that matters are ever closed for discussion or presented as fact. The question does, however, arise as to whether these theories should be ignored because of the disagreement. Let’s get back to the cupboard example. Scientist A and Scientist B push you and I aside and, despite not yet having managed to cut a key for the complex lock, each manage to insert their own specially-designed probes into the keyhole and (almost) into the cupboard. A then swears that it’s filled with an unknown gas, but B retorts that it is, in fact, empty … a complete vacuum. A highly-publicised nerd war erupts.

 

Should I accept your sausage theory, simply because of this disagreement and give up on exploring what each of these scientists has to say? I would submit that I should not. They, at least, have run real-world experiments to back up what they are suggesting. You have not.

 

“There is more to life than science.”

 

Once again, I cannot argue against this statement in isolation. But, it is often used to suggest that certain sausage theories should be left outside of the realm of science, as they are better suited to gut feel, introspection and/or philosophy. I would agree with you, if you were speaking about things such as how to live your life to its fullest, but would disagree, if you tried to apply it to a question that may (even in the distant future) have a scientific explanation.

 

Just because we are far off now, does not mean that your gut feel gets to fill in the blank in the interim. Rather be mature about it and say “I don’t know”. Guessing about sausages does not provide any kind of acceptable answer.

 

To end …

 

So, will science be wrong again in the future? Almost certainly. Will it discover all the answers and will everyone agree on them? Probably not, but maybe. Is there more to ‘it all’ than science? Indeed, but it depends on what you’re talking about.

 

Do these shortfalls warrant a departure from science? Should we revert to explaining things according to what ‘feels right’? Should we dismiss established knowledge on the basis of these shortcomings? Should we feel free to insert place holders, until the time that science provides the actual answers? No – not if your goal is to find the truth.

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