3 Important Myths About Science
The hard limits of mankind’s greatest tool
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 4 stars is more of a generous overall average than a consistent standard of cleanliness. Science isn’t necessarily cut and dry, it can be a messy business.
Nearly 50 years ago, Harvard Physicist Thomas Kuhn wrote a book which 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, many science’s strongest foundations underwent radical re-evaluation. The book was called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. It paved the way for much modern scholarship.
Sadly, despite his revolutionary work, much modern non-professional discourse on science overlooks Kuhn’s vital contributions and many myths which have been put to rest are still circulating around science almost half a century later. Three of them will be introduced and discussed here, both with and without reference to Kuhn.
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 “natural law” of exponential growth, something which really happens in nature. We mean so objectively, whether or not a particular person or group believes it or knows about it it’s still true.
Kuhn (and many following thinkers like Paul Feyarabend) 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 the geocentric and anthropocentric views of the ancient Greeks. When he described planetary orbits as uniform and circular motions (rather than elipses or other alternatives) he did so because of the influence of Aristotle and Platonism on ancient Greek thought.
Needless to say, both of these Scientific theories have since been disproven; 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 but 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 it’s 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 in no small part because it is perceived as being the most “true”. As the late Steven 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 for bad).
Demarcation - The Myth That Science Can Be Clearly Defined
The second myth may be just as dangerous as the first. Many groups and individuals treat science, either directly or indirectly, as though it can be clearly deffined. 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 it’s 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.
This myth can have significant consequences because, depending on how science is defined, we may give credibility where it is not due and take it away from where it may belong. If we treated spirit healing as a science then we may be failing to provide good medical care, whereas if we fail to incorporate social science as a science then we may risk losing valuable insights into the structure of our social fabric, from our criminal systems to our educational systems.
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 disect 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 straight forward 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 birth control pill to the fight against AIDS, have required a strong public drive for greater scientific understanding and research.
Observer-Theory Distinction - The Myth About Objectivity
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, fact is independent of theory. For example,the theory that planets orbit the sun (also known as heliocentrism) is apparently distinct from our observations about how the planets move.
The philosopher of science Karl Popper once rather 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.”
The intimate relationship between theory and observation is well expressed in the emergence of “Chaos theory” in the 20th century. It used to be the case, and largely remains the case today, that scientists removed what they called “noise” or excessive outlying data if it didn’t match what they were anticipating. In the 1960s however, scientists began to realise that this noise may be a real part of the entire system being studied and it was suddenly treated as real data and not just excess messiness. Scientific expectations had been used to edit and focus in on certain data and not others.
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 doesn’t just sit in an isolated vacuum. Its 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 presuposition.
Science isn’t perfect. It’s messier than you probably think.
This is by no means an exhaustive account of any of these issues, it is merely intended as an introduction. Please feel free to voice your own thoughts in the comments. For further reading on the hard boundaries of science please take a look at my article on whether we can make predictions about the future.