In recent decades, fuelled by the need for never-ending economic growth in the post world war 2 economic paradigm, science has become “soft” or “semi-science”. Modern science increasingly fails at decoupling scientific facts from separating, political or private motifs.
Important examples for such hijacked sciences are pharmaceutical research, climate science and – perhaps most worryingly – (mainstream i.e. Keynesian) economics itself. Even technology has partly turned into a mere illusion of progress, for example through planned obsolescence.
I think it is important to remember that – contrary to what the media make us believe – scientists can not know the truth – they are not even that interested in the truth that much. What interests them is finding ways to describe and predict what is going in the world as they perceive it, with a certainty that is sufficient for a particular and practical purpose.
Just because Newton came up with a mathematical way to describe some important aspects of what happens to an apple when it drops from a tree – does not mean he now knows the “truth” about falling apples.
However, he may be able to repeat the falling apple experiment many times and successfully predict the apple’s speed and direction at any time, reliably enough for many practical purposes. Most of the time scientists will find limitations of their theories almost instantly. Sometimes it may take a little longer. What is certain though is that there are always limitations like hidden parameters or unknown assumptions. The question is not “if there are limitations” but “where are they?”.
To improve reliability, theories can often be patched when new limitations become known. In case of Newton’s falling apple, many limitations became known later. Even the size, shape and colour of the apple may matter depending on how accurate a description of its behaviour is required. There are many more known and probably even more unknown parameters that could affect the falling apple in a real world environment.
Even under “controlled” laboratory conditions, scientists are always facing an often hopeless battle with nature:
- control of many known parameters like temperature, vibration, cosmic rays, heat transfer is often limited and often relies on the researchers gut feeling for what is “good enough”
- knowing and quantifying all possibly relevant forces & parameters
Even if scientists did know everything and could control every single variable perfectly – how could they ever be confident that they actually do know everything?
In practice they gain confidence from repeating experiments successfully. Unfortunately, the experimental conditions / assumptions are more likely to vary and change over time than remain constant.
Moreover, let’s not forget Heisenberg’s law of uncertainty that makes it impossible, even theoretically, to execute an experiment knowing all variables precisely. Because they can only quantify observable and considered uncertainties, the truth or perfect outcome may not even be within their error bars. The relevance of the unknown components can change any time and not be considered properly in error bars.
Before Heisenberg’s law of uncertainty and after Newtons Principia Matematica – there was a period where mankind had reason to believe that everything could, theoretically, be calculated if the physics is understood and almost unlimited computing power available. This had huge implications for religion and the idea that humans have a free will.
In other words, if – in addition to the physical laws – all atoms and their positions and velocities could be known, it should be possible to calculate the actions of any human being (and anything else) forward and backward in history.
If this was a true – even just in theory – possibility, it would not leave any space for the concept of a free will, ethics, most religion etc. – everything would have been determined a long time ago in every detail and there are no real choices.
Then came Heisenberg and saved all these exciting human ideas .. or at least their potentials that they can be true.
Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman said in a speech about “The Value of Science” in 1955:
Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained
So, contrary to what the TV box tells us, knowing the truth or anything “for sure” is not even a theoretical option. It can never be claimed not even if the word science is repeated in every sentence.
The relatively reliable and very powerful tool “science” has become the darling of the media and marketing and politics – conveniently over-hyped. Many scientists don’t mind (or are tied by their sponsors) the positive albeit unjustified propaganda – and why should they behave any different than other professions?
The only discipline I know of that can claim truth, absolute precision and certainty is – ironically – a non-science: mathematics. Mathematics is pure, precise and 100% certain.
Compared to mathematics, science is dirty, imprecise and uncertain. All other disciplines are likely to range from dirty to toxic (harmful and almost certainly wrong). Outside the theoretical world of mathematicians and thought experiments – the real world is either dirty or toxic.
Unfortunately the moment we apply mathematics to the real world it gets dirty and turns into a science if not worse.
What makes the scientist so powerful is not that he knows anything for sure but that he can describe, predict and reconstruct things in many cases with high reliability.
To achieve this, scientists need to apply the known theory thoroughly and point out the known uncertainties and critical assumptions and simplifications when they publish new knowledge.
Corporations and the media often use scientists to “prove” something is “certain and safe” – this is fraud in my opinion. The media and politicians naturally do this because it works as a tool to create profit and they can get away with lies like that in the increasingly struggling economic climate. Marketing people say: ” Science is great! We don’t need to find hundreds of people endorsing our product – all we need is one scientist, or even just the claim something is “scientifically proven”.
The number of disciplines associated with science has exploded in the past decades and even expanded into the humanities as well as economics or even “climate” science. Note, climate science really requires the collaboration of many different experts.
Science no longer stands for highly reliable knowledge. Today, science stands for “believe me because – unlike you – I can use maths, some statistical methods, complex sounding language and at least one other guy in my field agrees with me since this was published in a peer-reviewed scientific magazine”.
Unfortunately, the historically new peer review process has become the most important and signature scientific principle in many people’s (even some scientist’s) minds – not the much more objective reproducibility and falsify-ability of theories and experiments.
As long as scientists need experiments to test a hypothesis or learn something new, they can not claim to know the truth as something not worth questioning. As long as we need to test a theory or conduct research we need to stay critical towards our own knowledge.
It will be interesting to see what happens when the facts cannot longer be hidden from the people. What will happen when pharmaceutical researchers, climate alarmists and Keynesian economists admit they know much less than most people are told? Will most of us abandon science as a fact finding tool? Or will there be a renaissance – a return to proper science any time soon?
[ update May 7, 2012:] Are the facts already showing through? “Mr Global Warming Alarmist”, James Lovelock now admits he was extrapolating too far. He said human-caused carbon dioxide emissions were driving an increase in the global temperature, but added that the effect of the oceans was not well enough understood and could have a key role.
“The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books—mine included—because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened,” he said.
How about being a little more honest with the facts and uncertainties in the future?