I love science.
I really do, and I don’t think that anyone who pays attention to me can doubt that when I say it. What I’m about to say may come across as exactly the opposite–as someone who doesn’t love science–yet it’s because of my respect for the scientific method that I write this in the first place.
Jokingly, I wrote on Facebook yesterday:
The only time anyone is absolutely wrong is when they assert something as absolutely true.
It’s funny because it’s true.
Now, there is one caveat to a statement like that, and it deals with perception. Yes, I’m talking about perception again. Anything that is dependent upon perception is contingent upon perception, and can only true if the perceptions involved are true. Let’s take Einstein’s General Relativity as an example. As a theory, it can only be true if my perceptions about the universe are correct–if there really is a moon orbiting an Earth orbiting a sun, and all the other things. Whether my perceptions are correct, however, can never be determined.
That’s not enough, though, and it’s not really what I’m discussing today. It’s interesting from a philosophical standpoint, but of no practical use.
A lot of people make fun of the Amish for their almost random decision to stop progressing technology around 1864, as though that level of technology was not too much and not too little. It seems silly to us, and, I would say, it is silly, but we do exactly the same thing with our science.
Every single scientific theory that we hold true today exists because it turned a previous scientific theory that we believed was true on its head. There are no exceptions to this, and probably the most glaring example is the Bohr Atomic Model, which people in chemistry classes throughout the nation still learn about (in fact, my college Chemistry classes taught us the Bohr Model), which presents the image of a nucleus, which consists of protons and neutrons, being orbited by electrons on several different layers. We now know, of course, that this is not true. “Electron cloud” is a more accurate description of what electrons do than “electron layers,” and there’s no such thing as a proton or a neutron–both are combinations of quarks. It’s similar to how we once, thousands of years ago, concluded that all rocks are made of compressed sand, only to learn much later that the sand itself is made of other things and that there’s no such thing as a “sand particle.”
This is not a new thing. Even Einstein observed it, and used the analogy that science is like walking around the path of a mountain, slowly ascending. When you look around at the terrain nearby, your conclusions are limited by what you see. But as you continue to climb, you see that the terrain you saw when you were lower on the mountain is actually less of “what there is” than you thought. We have a long history of believing that the horizon we currently see is the true edge of the world. We have the same problem when it comes to science, believing that whatever we happen to think at a given moment is the truth.
There is a reason that science as a field designates its highest certainty as the theory rather than the fact, and this is exactly why: a theory is only true if all the gathered evidence that went into producing that theory is actually the way it is perceived. Einstein’s General Relativity does a fantastic job of explaining what we’ve observed, but that doesn’t mean it’s correct or true–in fact, we could very easily find out one day that gravity exists because subatomic gremlins hold things together. That’s not likely, granted, but a theory is simply an explanation. There is no way of knowing if it is the correct explanation.
Take, for example, the statement “2 becomes 20.”
How did I get from 2 to twenty? One hypothesis would be that I multiplied 2 by 10. This makes a prediction: if I have 3, then, according to this hypothesis, my end result will be 30.
Suppose, though, that I give 3 = 15.
Uh-oh. You have more evidence and information now than you did when I said 2 = 20 and decided that I’m multiplying by 10. What is your explanation now? What will I do to 4? Would you guess “10”? Would you guess “40”? Would you guess some other number? What hypothesis would you suggest to explain how I got from 2 to 20, and from 3 to 15?
Suppose I give you 4 = 40. Things are starting to become clearer, aren’t they? And then I give you 5 = 25. Now you have enough to actually piece it together. I’m multiplying even numbers by 10, and multiplying odd numbers by 5.
But for a brief period during that, your hypothesis was that I’m multiplying by ten–and you undoubtedly would have believed that hypothesis to be true. Yet it was wrong. Further information revealed that the hypothesis wasn’t correct. This is why “theory” is the highest tier of certainty. Any hypothesis is 100% dependent on the amount of information available.
A scientific theory is not “the truth” or “a fact.” It’s a reasonable explanation that happens to fit the evidence that we have available. Even if that evidence we have is all-inclusive (which it isn’t, never has been, and probably never will be), this doesn’t imply or suggest that the explanation we have proposed is correct–it’s simply an explanation. It is an explanation that fits the evidence, but this in no way suggests that it is true. We have confused “could be true, based on the evidence” with “Yes, that’s absolutely true.”
My fear is that we seem to be moving toward a second Dark Age, one that is being brought about because of faith in “science.” Because people have mistaken “This could be true, based on the evidence” with “This is absolutely true,” they become no different from the dark age priests who asserted absolute truth and condemned as heretics any who dared oppose them. Right now, that innocuous post on Facebook, I’ve defended from two people already, one of whom continues to insist that “truth” can be obtained, despite how that flies directly in the face of the scientific method.
It seems to be leftist reactionism, in fact–a retaliation against the “anti-science” bent on the right. The further the right goes into “science isn’t credible,” the further the left goes into “Our religion is law, heretic, and our religion is science.” I’ve seen people post about GMOs, vaccines, and climate change in regard to the scientific predictions of today’s solar eclipse, as though “science” is as certain in regard to these prior things as it is with the latter. This… isn’t the case at all, firstly–solar eclipses are predicted mathematically. Thus far, the mathematical predictions regarding climate change have been… Well, let’s say “not correct.” Remember how the polar ice caps were supposed to have melted by like 2010 or something?
The most alarming thing, I think, are the tons of people who praise science and the assertion that “Vaccines are perfectly safe.” I’m neither pro nor anti-vaccine. I don’t have children. Vaccines don’t seem to have caused me any problems, so I really don’t give a shit. I’ve not researched it extensively because I don’t really give a shit.
However, I do know–because I have a scientific mind–that anyone who asserts that “vaccines are absolutely safe” is full of shit. It’s impossible to prove a positive claim. It’s impossible in both theory and in practice. These modern day adherents to the religion of science are professing absolute truth, are professing to know something that their very own religion confirms is impossible to know. It doesn’t particularly matter to me whether vaccines do or don’t have negative side effects. However, the statement “Vaccines do no harm” is pseudo-science. It’s magical woo. It’s bullshit.
And let us not forget that, for decades, “high fructose corn syrup” was “perfectly safe.” Oops. We turned the nation into obese diabetics. Moreover, “anti-biotics” were “perfectly safe.” Oops. We caused the evolution of viruses that have the Promiscuous Gene, which, because it’s promiscuous, is causing an alarming and terrifying spread of antibiotic-resistant viruses and bacteria. “Oops” indeed. Our “perfectly safe” antibiotics probably will have killed us all, in the end. Once upon a time, even smoking cigarettes was “perfectly safe.” Aspartame is now considered “perfectly safe,” though it was, 60 years ago, considered a poison. Fluoride in the water is considered “perfectly safe,” even though it’s the same crap dentists tell you “Don’t eat or drink for 30 minutes” after they put it in your mouth. So I think the phrase “perfectly safe” is not something that anyone should use if they wish to be taken seriously.
What is my point?
I don’t really have one, except to say that…
Nothing is known, because nothing can be known, except those very few things that transcend perception. Everything else can only be a possible explanation for what is observed, and will be entirely dependent upon “what is observed.” Since “what is observed” is never the totality of what can be observed, it’s inevitable that the explanation will be changed to fit observations made further down the road. And even then, even if we could gather all evidence, it would still be contingent upon the perceptions of the person observing the evidence, which cannot be demonstrated as valid.
And that’s among the truest statements that “science” could possibly say.
Absolute certainty doesn’t exist. Reasonable certainty is all there is.