The hard limits of mankind’s greatest tool.
Written by: Cory Novis
Art by: Winnie Lei
Realising the truth about science is a bit like realising the truth about your favourite (but slightly sketchy) Indian restaurant. Sure, it has a four-star hygiene rating, but maybe four stars is more of a generous overall average than a consistent standard of cleanliness. Science isn’t necessarily consistent, it can be a messy business.
Nearly 50 years ago, many of science’s strongest foundations underwent radical re-evaluation due to the work of Harvard physicist Thomas Kuhn, who wrote a book that shook the world of science to its core. Within its pages Kuhn dismantled some of science’s most significant dominant notions, from the belief that we could clearly define science, to the idea that its theories are real. Kuhn described science not as a slow and cumulative process (as it was formerly conceived), but as a form of intellectual progress which was often punctuated by periods of rapid and fundamental revolution. This book was called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, and it paved the way for much modern scholarship.
Sadly, despite making a significant impact in academia, a great deal of public discourse on science overlooked Kuhn’s vital contributions and many science myths which have been put to rest in academia are still circulating around almost half a century later.
Naïve Realism – The Myth that Science is Simply “True”
Our first myth in question is that scientific truths are simply real truths about the world. In other words, we tend to treat scientific theories as though they are real. If we were to say that population growth is exponential we don’t just mean that it is exponential in theory, we mean that it’s true in practice. We are saying that this theory represents a “scientific law” of exponential growth, something which really happens in nature.
Kuhn (and many following thinkers like Paul Feyerabend) described a very different picture in which scientific theories, like any other theories, are better described as having been socially constructed rather than being objective statements of reality. When the ancient Greek scientist Ptolemy described the orbit of the planets around the Earth rather than around the Sun he did so because of the geocentric and anthropocentric views of the ancient Greeks. When he described planetary orbits as uniform and circular motions (rather than ellipses or other alternatives) he did so because of the influence of Aristotle and Platonism on ancient Greek thought.
Needless to say, both scientific theories have since been disproved. Ptolemy and Aristotle were mistaken about the movement of the heavens. Alarmingly, this was by no means the only time in history that scientific theories have been refuted and replaced. Doctors once thought that blood seeped from one side of the heart to the other; biologists once thought that sperm cells contained little humans; astronomers once thought that the moon was a perfect spherical mirror. Given this, we are left to wonder how many theories are socially justified in science today and which, in the future, may be revealed to be false. All of this is to say nothing of the more technical problems facing modern science from academic dishonesty, to badly designed studies and methodologies. Science today, as throughout its history, is riddled with academic dilemmas which impact its validity and credibility.
None of this is to say that science isn’t useful or that science is “wrong”, but regardless, this myth can have unfortunate consequences. Today, science is often given supreme authority over other competing knowledge systems like religion and the humanities because it is perceived to be the most “true”. As the late Stephen Hawking once put it: “scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.” Although this has given us a staggering amount of knowledge about the world around us, it has also resulted in an undervaluation of religious, cultural, artistic, and social truths (or “human” truths) relative to the truths espoused in the sciences (both for good and bad).
For two more science myths, please refer to part two of this article.