There are a lot of misconceptions about what science actually is, and, as a result, there are a lot of incorrect conclusions about the reliability and utility of science. I frequently encounter people who expect science to give absolute answers. They act as though science is a method for proving what is true with 100% certainty. As a result, they view cases where science led to an incorrect conclusion as evidence that science itself is flawed. You can clearly see this in arguments that a current scientific result doesn’t need to be accepted because “science has been wrong before” or “there used to be a scientific consensus that the earth was flat” (there wasn’t, but that’s another topic), etc. Similarly, there is a false view that a scientific conclusion is either 100% right or 100% wrong. In reality, science is a path to knowledge. It is a way of testing ideas and slowly building a body of knowledge based on the results of those tests. Sometimes, the path takes wrong turns, but unlike every other path to knowledge that has ever been invented, science is systematic and self-correcting and steers itself back in the correct direction, resulting in a gradual accumulation of knowledge.
Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that this description of science as a “path to knowledge” is not original with me and was coined by my friend and fellow skeptic, The Credible Hulk. So, go check out their blog and Facebook page for more great science content.
I really love this description of science as a “path to knowledge” because it beautifully encapsulates what science is and why it works. You see, science does not give absolute results. In other words, it does not “prove” anything with utter certainty. Rather, science is all about probabilities. As I often like to say, science simply shows us what is most likely to be true given the current evidence. That probability can, however, always change with future evidence. Any scientific result can be overturned as new evidence comes to light.
The tentative nature of a scientific result is one of its great strengths, but it can lead to confusion. People often make the incorrect leap from, “science does not give definitive answers” to “science is uncertain and therefore I don’t have to accept a given result.” This is a flawed way of understanding science. Remember, it is a way for telling us what is most likely true given the current evidence. Therefore, it’s results should be accepted until such time as future evidence arises to discredit those results. Sticking with our path analogy, a lack of 100% certainty that a path is going the right direction would not justify abandoning the path altogether and wandering aimlessly through the forest. Further, a lack of 100% certainty does not mean that we cannot be highly confident in a result. There are some things that have been so thoroughly tested so many times in so many ways that it is extraordinarily unlikely that they are wrong. In other words, some paths are marked well enough that you can be really confident in them.
On the other end of the spectrum, people ignore the tentative nature of scientific conclusions and act as though it should give definitive answers, leading to the flawed arguments about science having been wrong in the past. These arguments are problematic in a number of important ways. First, they treat the inherently self-correcting nature of science as if it is a bad thing, when in fact, it is another great strength of science. Really think about this. If you are going to argue that, “I don’t have to accept a scientific result because scientists used to think sun moved around the earth,” my question would be, “why do we no longer think that the sun moves around the earth?” The answer is very clearly that other scientists continued conducting tests and discredited the previous view. Science corrected itself. This is not a weakness, but rather a strength. No other path to knowledge does this. No other system of understanding repeatedly and systematically tests its conclusions and updates its information by rejecting debunked results and accepting new results.
Further, because of the way that science advances, the argument that “science has been wrong before” is inherently self-defeating. Sticking with the orbit of the earth for a minute, we only know that the earth orbits the sun because science debunked the notion that the sun orbits the earth, so you can’t use that as an argument that science doesn’t work, because the argument inherently includes the premise that science works! In other words, if this argument gives us carte blanche to disregard scientific results, then why should we accept the result that the earth moves around the sun? That result was produced by science, and this argument claims that we don’t have to accept scientific results, so why should we accept the result that the earth moves around the sun? We only know that science was wrong before because of science. Again, this self-correction is one of the best things about science.
Additionally, it is important to realize that scientific results are often incomplete more than actually wrong, and there are degrees of wrongness. The progression of physics is a great example of this that I use frequently. Newton made enormous strides in physics. He moved us far along the path, but we later found out that he was slightly off course. Einstein showed that Newton’s work was incomplete and his conclusions did not apply universally. However, that didn’t mean that we threw Newton out the window and went all the way back to the trail marker Newton started at. Newton moved us closer to the truth, and Newtonian physics are still taught and applied all around the world, but he was incomplete, and Einstein took Newton’s results and shifted us back on track. Think of it like this: we needed to go north, and Newton took us slightly north west. He still moved us much closer to our goal, but we needed Einstein to reorient us and get us back on track.
This gradual accumulation of knowledge is another key aspect of science. Yes, science sometimes makes mistakes, but because it corrects those mistakes, we gradually get closer and closer to the truth. People who thought the sun revolved around the earth were less wrong than people who though the sun was a god. Galileo was less wrong than the people who thought the sun moved around the earth. Newton was less wrong than Galileo. Einstein was less wrong than Newton, etc. At each step, we got closer, and closer to the truth. This is also another reason why it is so absurd to blindly disregard modern scientific results on the basis that science has been wrong before. Science is a gradual accumulation of knowledge, and although there certainly are things about which we are wrong today, we are less wrong than previous generations, and we know this because we tested the views of previous generations and built on that knowledge.
To give another example, there are certainly things about which modern medicine is wrong. That is inevitable due to the tentative and probabilistic nature of science, but modern medicine is less wrong than medicine was 20 years ago, and medicine 20 years ago was less wrong than medicine 40 years ago, and medicine 40 years ago was less wrong than medicine 60 years ago, etc. Further, I can demonstrate this extremely easily. Imagine you need a major medical intervention and you can be treated using the technology and knowledge from any of the following time points: 200 years ago, 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 25 years ago, or current. Rank your choice from lowest to highest. I’m willing to bet your choices went chronologically (inverse) with your preference being treatment via our current knowledge, and there is a very good reason why that is the correct way to rank things. Namely, science works! It’s not perfect, but it is a path that moves generally in the right direction, and we all intuitively realize that science has helped us progress and, thanks to science, we know more than any generation before us knew.
Further, we can extend my medical analogy to just about any field of science. Imagine that you are on a game show run by omnipotent aliens with a perfect knowledge of the universe. They ask you a chemistry question, and you have a lifeline that will let you call a random chemist from the current year, or from 25 years ago, or from 50 years ago, etc. Whom do you call? Obviously, you call the chemist from the current year. Again, we all intuitively accept that science works and gradually builds knowledge. Even those who like to argue that “science has been wrong before” must admit that, thanks to science, we know more now than at any other point in our history. Science has a proven track record of moving us in the right direction.
Finally, if you are not convinced by anything I’ve said thus far, then my question for you is simply, “what’s the alternative?” Really think about this. What other path to knowledge can compete with science? As I’ve explained before, science is responsible for our modern society. All of the technological and medical marvels around you are the result of gradually testing ideas and accumulating knowledge. Look at all the previously fatal diseases that we can now cure or even prevent, look at the decreases in mortality rates, etc. All of that is because of science. So why should we go back to unsystematic guess work? We tried other systems (like relying on anecdotes) for millennia, and they didn’t work. It was science that brought us out of the dark ages, and it is science that will allow us to continue our advancement as a species. Again, that doesn’t make science perfect or infallible. It simply shows us what is most likely true given the current evidence, but by constantly testing, by constantly self-correcting, by constantly updating, it gradually moves us closer and closer to the truth. It’s not perfect, and it certainly isn’t a straight path, but it’s the best path to knowledge that we have.
Note: To anyone who is about to reply with a snarky remark about doctors/scientists saying that smoking is safe, please read this post. The reality is that there was never a scientific consensus that smoking was safe and, in fact, science had showed that it caused cancer all the way back in the 1930’s. Indeed, actual studies consistently showed that it was dangerous. Tobacco companies simply did a good job of creating the illusion that science was on their side; meanwhile, actual science was continuing along the correct path.
- “But scientists have been wrong in the past…”
- Most scientific studies are wrong, but that doesn’t mean what you think it means
- No one thought that Galileo was crazy, and everyone in Columbus’s day knew that the earth was round
- Settled science part 1: Is science ever actually settled?
- Settled science part 2: Creating the illusion of a debate
- Science matters because it works
- Scientism: Is it a straw man or a legitimate critique?
- Scientists aren’t stupid, and science deniers are arrogant