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The truth of the truths of science

19 November 2012, 12:01

People often extol the virtues of science- its methodology, facts, usefulness, practitioners and the truths science generates.

It is as well to keep perspective and understand exactly what it is that these truths represent, the truth of these truths.

The bottom line of the truths of science is that they will always be limited.

It is inevitable. Scientific Methodology and the way Scientists conceive of and conduct their science limits the truths science can generate.

This doesn't always matter. Scientists produce interesting descriptions of how things are, often enough usable facts and can create truly entertaining theories. Also scientists are people too and often enough some have imaginative or conceptual leaps which help them escape their limitations.

It does matter when the consequences of science working with limited truths are devastating.

Two limits

First, scientific methodology limits the variables of its investigations and the contexts in which they occur. It has to. There are just too many.

Second, the facts of science are based on observations. It's good because observable and repeatable facts are more useful than mere speculation and fancies.

Yet observation itself limits the truth. The tools, the means of observation as well as the conceptual and value frameworks underlying observation, determine what is observed and what isn't, won't or can't be. Also, as other recognise that the act of observation can influence what is observed.

Scientists recognise some of this. Part of what they do is to improve at least the tools of observation and take steps to counter at least what they see could influence their observations. They also understand that they need to extend the languages in which they record their observations and think about at least parts of they investigate. Until this is perfected (it is debatable whether it can be) the truths of science will always be limited.

Thank goodness scientists are people too and have a non-scientific leaps in their understanding. But it is just a fact that Scientific Methodology does not yet require, nor does it have the tools to overcome the limits of the frameworks in which they operate.

The whole issue of the reduction by science of what can and can't be known is an interesting discussion. But here I'm just looking at two self-imposed limits

Observations of the limits of scientific truths

The following is not a logical or religious proof of the limits of science. It records factual observations.

It is true that the universe works as it does without science. Planets form, grass grows, gravity gravitated, so to speak, before scientists got hold of it. Wine was sipped before the institution of science was created.

It is true that often science is more accurate in talking about what has happened and can't change as opposed to talking about what will happen or even what is happening. Much like weather forecasting and reporting.

It is also true that scientific knowledge evolves; that it accumulates and its accumulations allow it to evolve and develop. At one time people saw the sun going around the Earth. It's an observation still so ingrained that most people even scientists, still talk about sunrises and sunsets. Few talk about the our planet's rotation, fewer still, other than the inebriated, feel them.

So, a Copernicus will at a time show that the Earth goes around the sun but assume a circular orbits. A few years later a Kepler will look closer and see the orbits are not circular but maybe elliptical. His work will be revised and a stamp printed in his honour.

Later scientists will separate the truths they want to use from his religious aims and gently mock them. But this backward look into a past era doesn't allow them to see their current myths. That's not part of the scientific method. One only as to look at the denialism among scientists when their own first talked about black holes and multi-verses to know this.

While it matters less that it takes time to get the planets and stars right, in the case of Thalidomide the cost of the limits of scientific truths and the scientific method matters a great deal. The drug invented by scientists to help women with morning sickness – we all know anyway this was to make money rather than a pursuit of truth or even really an altruistic attempt to help them - resulted in severe birth defects. I don't thnk anyone glorifies the wider truth they they uncovered by foisting it on the innocent, even after the initial, considerable denials.

Sure we can allow scientists to ameliorate the devastation be calling it an example not of science but of bad science. But there are other examples. Few if any scientists tried to invent a different kind of DDT that didn't have its ecological consequences. Instead they just formed into for and against camps.

It was true in a narrow context that adding lead to petrol took away the “knock” in internal combustion engines. It took a good few years and a lot of poisoning for scientists to work out that actually there was more to their first truth and start working on lead-free fuels.

You can multiply the problem areas: nuclear power, cellphone radiation, non-biodegradable plastics, formula-baby milks that are promoted as being as good as mother's milk, and the cavalier approach to genetic modification of plants and of people.

Scientists, you see, are neat dodgers. If they can't see problems they say there are no problems. And worse, if someone raises a possible problem, they ask “Where's the evidence?” There is enough evidence to show that science should first work on the whole truth, on all its consequences before it dumps on us.

Indulge, if you please, a personal example. Scientists worked out how to brew Castle Lager in 24 hours. I'm sure chemical brewings make financial sense. But that narrow context destroyed my philosophical lubricant. After many years of faithful sipping, when the change came I tried hard to ignore the scientific insipidity. I ended up not minding: there are other great beers.

Let's go on to other observations.

Scientists argue among themselves. They argue for about global warming, climate change, even what they want to call it. Competing for the truth could be good and right. But in the meantime we pay the price. And we know that the real issue is the impact and sustainability of going on and on pumping pollutants and poisons into the air, water and land that actually are essential to our very lives.

Scientists even argue with themselves. Tim Noakes' about turn on carbohydrate-rich diets is an example. He followed all the right protocols. Got his degrees and accolades.. He now says there is more to the truth. It's good that the truth is now richer. Sure. But if he says cut out all carbohydrates, know that this is merely a part of the truth.


Maybe Science wants to look into the mirrors of Truth. Even the quickest glance will show that science is not aimed at a full Truth.

The Truth is at best a gradually accumulating by-product of what it science does.

The truth of science is that it doesn't serve the truth. Much of it is aimed at usable facts to support that cravings of its political, financial and military masters, and, we need to be aware, of scientist's vanities. Scientists are people.

And while they might dress their work in the finery of the Scientific Method so that it looks good, their naked work is too often venal and sycophantic. Go ask Wouter Basson.

Scientists you see happily produce mustard gas, napalm and other ways of killing or terrorising people. They happily work for cigarette companies.

Some, with all their scientific nobility, race to find a drug that will slim-trim obese consumers. But the truth that these unhealthy people should eat and exercise right; that the garbage produced by Coca-Cola and McDonald's and their competitors is in fact poisonous garbage, is not on their agenda. Making money is out of the obese and those who fund their treatment is.

If you stand a little bit further back from the mirror you will understand that Scientific Methodology does not yet require a moral-sustainable-ecological context. Don't worry I know they are not really different.

That is a just a scientific fact. It does not mean that there are no moral scientists. Of course some of them are good people who don't want to damage too much. It just means that science, the scientific method excludes morality, ignores the moral outcomes in its attempt a distilled purity.

Let's sum up

Just don't wonder that not all of us merrily rush out proclaiming the wonders of science; and wonder instead just what else we ought to know. That we would much rather eat fresh whole, organically produced foods than scientifically preserved and labelled foods.

The truths of sciences are hardly ever the whole truth. They are only part of it. There is always more to know.

I would venture that science in practice, when it is more than just describing, and in teaching, would do well to tell us more of the whole truth, even if it takes extra work.

To tell us which interests the truths it presents are serving,

To keeping telling us what it's uncoveries enable. Equally to work out and make a point of telling us what they disable or even if they just haven't bothered to look.

To tell us how they are fixing their methodology so that it includes ways of:

  • understanding and overcoming the assumptions and myths that are built into its current state of development;

  • requiring the development and extension the contexts of the nearly usable facts it uncovers

  • adding a moral and ecological dimension even if they don't yet understand what it means and what it takes. Other enabling values it can add once they have mastered these... yes, there are more.

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