A recent comment on my post, Isaac Newton and intelligent design, implied that scientific explanations are seen as facts. This attitude might be true for some people – after all the scientific method has a good track record in producing theories which enable humanity to understand its surroundings, develop sophisticated technology and improve the quality of life. But describing scientific ideas or theories as facts, or attributing that belief to supporters of science (as the comment did), is a misrepresentation of science.
In his book Hiding in the Mirror : The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions, from Plato to String Theory and Beyond Lawrence Krauss said:
“What is too often underappreciated about science is that almost all of the ideas it proposes turn out to be wrong.”
Any researcher, particularly in the physical sciences, knows this to be very true. It is in the nature of the scientific method that ideas, hypotheses, are proposed and most of these turn out to be wrong. And we know they are wrong because the ideas are tested in practice, by experiment, measurements and observations of reality. It is the ideas or hypotheses which survive such testing that are incorporated into scientific theory, become part of accepted scientific knowledge. Even then, of course, such knowledge is relative. New discoveries often lead to modification, or even replacement, of a scientific theory if it is proved to be inadequate.
Fitting beliefs to reality
This process is what separates the scientific way of thinking from popular attitudes which encourage holding on to beliefs, whatever the facts. Krauss again:
“In order to separate science from superstition, we need to recognise that … we all want to believe. Forcing our beliefs to confirm to the realities of nature, however, rather than the other way around, is much more difficult and is really, in my opinion, one of the greatest gifts that science can provide our civilisation.”
I have commented before that I think it is arrogant for someone to make a claim about reality which they either refuse to allow to be tested or even claim that it is impossible to test. How can one honestly claim knowledge in such cases? But think of this. If humanity’s experience is that most ideas we have about reality prove to be incorrect when we test them, what does this say about those untested and untestable claims? They are surely just as likely to be wrong as any other idea about reality. I say that, in fact, they are even more likely to be wrong. Because the claims are made without any intention of subjecting them to testing.
People making such claims often try to misrepresent scientific knowledge and the scientific method. It is easy to criticise and it is easy to find gasps in our knowledge. But of course, these critics are incapable of filling in the gaps. This requires more science, not superstition.
I think Einstein summarised a true respect for science in his comment:
“One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike – and yet it is the most precious thing we have.”
Should we teach creationism?
Science, art & pumpkins
Miracles and the supernatural?
Can science enrich faith?
Theology of the Emperor’s New Clothes
Limits of science or religious “fog”?
Debating science and religion
Questions science cannot answer?
Limits of science, limits of religion
Morals, values and the limits of science
Humility of science and the arrogance of religion
Intelligent design/creationism I: What is scientific knowledge?
Intelligent design/creationism II: Is it scientific?
Intelligent design/creationism IV: The religion – science conflict