“Science doesn’t have all the answers! It shouldn’t be the way we try to solve our problems!”
If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard people express their skepticism towards science, I would be a wealthy man. Scientism, it is claimed, leads to a colder, heartless society in which our humanity will be lost.
Science works precisely because we are human. Science is a way to approach objective truth by employing strict experiment design routines, parsimonious theory formulations, stringent data analysis and meticulous scrutiny of our own work. Don’t worry, I’ll explain.
I freely admit that when I studied philosophy of science at university I was more concerned with how my study group had a high percentage of females, but I have since come to appreciate the elegance of the scientific method. The scientific method as we know it is a fairly new invention, although its previous incarnations were important steps on the way. Since Thales of Milet decided to question reality all those thousands of years ago, we have been steadily at work, formulating new and better ways to establish something close to facts.
The thing we all need to understand about science is that, very simply, it isn’t about what we can prove – it’s about what we can’t disprove. This distinction is very important.
You see, one of the major problems of science the way it existed before our current stage was that it allowed for unparsimonious theories to abound. All the prospective scientist needed to do was to indicate some congruence between his hypothesis and the accrued data, and hey, presto! – science. Scientific facts.
We set down the rules very basically: make a prediction, test it against reality and/or lab conditions, interpret data and formulate a theory. Either the hypothesis is strengthened or weakened. Very simple, right?
However, this is where I will piss in your cornflakes: the highest degree of scientific accuracy is established by employing critical faculties. We actually try our hardest to disprove our own theories. To the up-and-coming scientist, this may seem like killing one’s own babies, but it really is the best way to ensure certainty. Besides, if you have established a theory and haven’t been stringent enough in proofing it, you can bet your ass the next guy will relish the opportunity to take it apart. He may even make some brownie points doing it. This may buy him future funding.
So what about those entrenched scientific truisms and tropes we hear about, like how Big Science is withholding or suppressing cures for cancer, AIDS/HIV, Ebola, the Nile virus and a partridge in a pear-tree? Like how vaccines contain mercury, liquid cancer, aborted fetuses and the tears of child labourers forced to endure the most horrible of vicissitudes every single moment of every single day? I wish I could say I was sorry to burst that particular bubble, but I’m not. Truth is robust. The truth is resistant to slander and outright lies. Because the truth doesn’t care about your opinion.
One excellent example of truth winning out is Richard Lenski’s long-term evolution experiment, in which he amply demonstrated how evolution does take place in living organisms, thus proving creationism and intelligent design proponents wrong. This, of course, was no obstacle to them, and they blithely carried on, rehashing old, long-falsified claims as though they were true.
You see, no matter how much we would like reality to behave in one way or another, it doesn’t care. It. Does. Not. Care. Reality will simply unfold before us, and it is up to us to design ever stronger theories to explain it and build an ever stronger understanding of reality.
But what separates good science from bad science? Well, to put it simply: the good science works. It can be tested, it can be picked at, it can be attacked and it will not be any less true. Reality is that which does not go away when we stop believing in it.
(I know that many of my fellow skeptics apply the same Ockham’s Razor to religion, dismissing all religious claims as unfalsifiable bunk, but this is one area where I will simply disagree. Religion is far more complicated than a simple yes/no question, and I for one have decided to support religious freedom.)
So basically, what we do know about science is that it progresses with time, and it gets more precise with time. It does not, I repeat NOT, care what you, I or anyone else thinks should be true. Of course, there are abuses of the system even in our time, and people suppress or hide findings to promote their own agenda, but this can only be compared to pissing your pants to keep warm. You will be found out, and when you are found out you will be discredited and no one will listen to you again.
Unless, of course, you are a practiced quack with an agenda and devoted followers who have invested too much into your crackpot theories to accept anything less than being completely right. Then you are fucked. Doomed to an existence of science denialism, opposing scientific progress at every turn, working hard to prove black white and up down. Ben Goldacre has written extensively about this, and I strongly urge anone who has bothered to read this far to check him out. Some of the science denialist stories almost seem too insane to be true, but the worst part is that they’re not.
Science, in its purest form, isn’t about fiddling about with something delicate or fragile. It’s about building increasingly robust edifices and trying to destroy them. Only when we fail to destroy them can we say we are successful. This is why science is perfect for humanity. It will progress both thanks to our increasing scientific ability and our inherent human weakness.
Of course science isn’t everything. Of course it doesn’t know everything. Of course it doesn’t dictate values. It simply tells us what is the closest thing we have to truth.
And don’t you forget it.