Tuesday, 13 April 2010

What science isn't

We quite often get certain newspapers slagging off scientists for changing their minds, or for daring to get things wrong. At the same time, those who dislike the theory of evolution criticize it because it's 'only a theory.' After all, surely science is about discovering absolute truths?

I'm not sure how we do it, but we really need to redress the balance on just what science is. I think part of the problem is our tendency to use terms like 'natural laws' or to make statements about scientific ideas like the Big Bang as if they were proven fact.

Although he is disliked by many modern philosophers of science, there is a lot to be said for the views of Karl Popper. He typified the scientific method as being one of falsification. He argued we can never prove a scientific theory right, but we can prove one wrong - so a lot of science should be about chipping away at theories, looking for flaws.

If we are honest and grown up about it, science is a best guess based on our current information. Over time information will change and better guesses will emerge, overthrowing the current best. Some of those best guesses hold up incredibly well against what we observe. Others are, frankly, a bit shaky. But science is not 'the truth', some sort of absolute description of the universe and how it works.

Some would hold this as vindication for giving equal weight to every other theory, from creationism to alternative medicines. But this misses the point. Our current scientific picture is not just a random guess at what's going on, it's the best guess based on our current information. Unless you can come up with a better guess - one that better matches observation, or you can come up with new, reproducible information that supercedes what we're basing things on at the moment, then we'll stick with the current best guess.

If only people had this picture of science more clearly, maybe we wouldn't have the Daily Mail rolling out new 'causes' and 'preventions' of cancer every week, nor would there be attacks on evolution for being 'just a theory'. That's how science is - it's flawed, it isn't perfect. But it's damned good.

2 comments:

  1. Creation theology is the antithesis of science. It starts with a conclusion (namely the literal truth of scripture), and extrapolates backwards. But how many people understand evolution anyway? That is the problem. Crackpot theories thrive because most people do not understand the science. And evolution is about as close to scientific truth as we can get.

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