Three important myths about science, part 2

The hard limits of mankind’s greatest tool.

Written by: Cory Novis

Art by: Winnie Lei

Demarcation – The Myth That Science Can Be Clearly Defined

In Part One of this article, science was revealed to be a little more complicated than simply “a set of facts that are true”, and this second myth may just be as dangerous as the first. Many groups and individuals treat science, either directly or indirectly, as though it can be clearly defined. In some cases this is easy to do: astrology (horoscopes and star signs) is not science, but astronomy is. What often gets forgotten is that a great deal of knowledge is more difficult to define. Is traditional Chinese medicine scientifically valid if it works despite its false theories? Can theoretical physics be a science if its theories cannot be scientifically tested? Is economics a science despite its poor predictive capabilities? None of these have simple answers and, simply put, there’s no easy way of knowing where exactly to draw the line.

What may be just as interesting is the almost insurmountable ambiguity surrounding science throughout its history. In many cases science has been too integrated with religion and/or technology for any meaningful distinctions to be made. Many modern scientific atheists have tried to dissect and disassociate science from its religious roots in order to strengthen the world view that science and religion have always been at odds, but this is demonstrably not the case.

Today this myth has unfortunate effects. Firstly, science is often viewed as distinct from and opposed to religion when, in fact, no such stark distinction exists. Many significant scientists have been, and continue to be, religious, from the founding father of genetics to the inventor of the World Wide Web. Secondly, science is often viewed as being distinct from politics when, in fact, they are profoundly intertwined. Science informs government policy and as a result of its privileged epistemological standing, it is often involved in the high stakes games that get played in the political arena. Science can and has been silenced, muted, deliberately misguided and even hijacked for political purposes. Finally, the distinction between the scientific community and the general public is not as straightforward as it may seem. Although science is often treated more as a concern for experts than for the public, it is clear that everyone needs to have a say in the course of science, not just scientists and investors. Many turning points in medical research, from the invention of the contraceptive pill to the fight against AIDS, have required a strong public drive for greater scientific understanding and research.

Perfect Objectivity – The Myth That Observations Can Be Free From Presupposition

Our third and final myth is also about distinctions, in this case between theories and observations. The traditional view of science, which largely endures today, is that theories and models are distinct from the observations we make. In other words, the theory that the earth orbits the sun (also known as heliocentrism) is distinct from my observations about how the planets move. The philosopher of science Karl Popper once famously demonstrated the absurdity of this myth by asking a group of physics students in Vienna to simply “observe” and then write down their observations. Naturally the students asked what it was exactly they were supposed to be observing. Popper’s point was to demonstrate that science needs to start with more than just “observation”, but rather with a pre-existing theoretical framework from which to seek out and make sense of observations. Scientists need something to expect and they need to know where to look.

Two people may look down a microscope and see completely different things depending on what theoretical framework they are using. A 17th century scientist may look at a sperm cell and see a little man with a long tail, whereas a modern biologist will see particular sections and divisions, such as a nucleus or mitochondria, which were invisible to previous scientists even with the necessary magnification.

It was this realisation which led Popper to make the following quote:

“The belief that we can start with pure observation alone, without anything in the nature of a theory is absurd.”

In summary, there are myths about science too. Science is not mankind’s “supreme” system of knowledge and to naïvely view it that way, we risk devaluing some important cultural and social truths. Science is not perfectly defined, it is messy and culturally embedded, it does not just sit in an isolated vacuum. It’s something we should all have a say in. Finally, science is not purely objective. It does not view raw facts and data without bias and presupposition. Science isn’t perfect. It’s messier than you probably think.

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