If you’re a scientist, please don’t take offence: I am not commenting on you or any other individual personally, nor am I going to argue that scientists are stupid. In fact, I believe quite the opposite. Undeniably, great breakthroughs have been made in the name of science, ranging from the first successful cloning of a living organism, to the creation of the digital realm and the virtual cloud, to the increasing human presence in areas beyond this planet. Scientific knowledge is often considered to be the key to the universe. Our circumstance finds itself so driven and bound by this area of knowledge, that it has manifested itself as a superior intellect that transcends the ‘wishy washy’ nature of, say, the arts. No other subject can rival the sciences in their rigour and apparent certainty of knowledge. Again and again we are told: ‘science is progress’.
Yet something that I often hear is that ‘science has proved that’ X or Y is the case - that, because it is ‘scientific’, it must be true with the certainty of mathematical deductions. It is an objective, absolute area of knowledge that transcends human subjectivity and bias.
Natural sciences are the objective truth of the functioning of the universe that must not be confused with the scientific knowledge humans perceive themselves to have. Whilst the first is entirely independent of human capabilities, research methods and belief, and thus exists in objective terms, the latter is what human research ‘proves’ to be true at any given time (proof in this case relies on inductive reasoning, as the hypothesis and evidence complement one another and are therefore accepted as fact. It hence relies on research capabilities and the assumption that prior discoveries are also ‘true’. Many believe that the two are the same, leading to the general assumption that the scientific knowledge at the time of a person’s existence must be objectively correct.
Take the example of the sun and the earth. Several hundred years ago, people firmly believed that the earth was at the centre of our solar system. Humanity perceived this to be the absolute, objective truth, because that is what evidence at the time pointed towards. At the time, this was perceived to be the scientific ‘truth’ that we strived towards. Yet by contrast, the then inconceivable idea that the sun was in fact central, and that all other celestial bodies orbited around it, is considered to be scientific truth today. Scientific understanding has a history and has changed over time, thus we might wonder to what extent they do give us absolute certainty.
The scientific method - the means to uncovering the objective truth behind the universe - entails five key steps:
The observation of relevant data enables patterns to be identified that enable the formulation of a hypothesis. Repeatability and reproducibility then confirm the aforementioned hypothesis, leading to a possible scientific law, something that is believed to be one of the objective laws that form the universe. It would seem as though humanity would be a step closer to this objective knowledge, therefore.
However, the fact that there are endless numbers of hypotheses that are consistent with a given set of observations, means that is it impossible to prove that observations are specific to any hypothesis.
Take this example: you are investigating the relationship between two variables. You make observations X1, X2 and X3. Based on these observations, you make hypothesis H1 and repeat this experiment with predictions. Your predictions are correct, but this does not prove that H1 is correct. X1, X2 and X3 do, in fact, correspond with another hypothesis: H2. Although further observations may eliminate H2 through falsification, it still corresponds with other hypotheses - H3 and H4 - that arise with each new set of observations (Y1, Y2 and Y3). The set of results corresponds with multiple hypotheses therefore. Despite multiple observations confirming H1, they will also be consistent with other hypotheses. Although you can assume H1 must be true to some extent, you can never prove it. A given set of results does not, therefore, necessarily prove a given hypothesis correct (creds to the TOK textbook for this explanation).
Generally in science, a hypothesis cannot be proven correct, but only falsified. When evidence does not support the null hypothesis, then although the theory may not be right, it is not wrong. In other words: there is a possibility that it may be correct. Disagreement in science over varying hypothesis as an explanation for a given set of results fosters the need for falsification. Any theory that resists efforts be to falsified should be provisionally accepted, according to Karl Popper, as it is the best we have for the time being. This implies, however, that it will never be true in the absolute sense; it is always possible that in the future it will be replaced by a better theory.
This approach in falsification does bear some weaknesses: it allows either the rejection of the hypothesis, and subsequent striving towards the next possible explanation, or alternatively the rejection of the conflicting observation. Charles Darwin, for example, argued that evolution requires the Earth to be hundreds of millions of years old to allow enough time for species to evolve. This conflicted with the calculation of leading physicist Lord Kelvin, whoa argued it was no more than 100 million years old. Charles Darwin dismissed his calculation as ‘preposterously inadequate’, and remained with his theory. Here, disagreement did not lead to the pursuit of knowledge, and indeed many today are not aware of the conflicting evidence, assuming instead that the theory of evolution must be correct as there is evidence to suggest this. Society in general has chosen to dismiss or ignore any conflicting evidence. Darwin’s theory of evolution is largely considered fact, for people have no better explanation as to why the Earth and its organisms are how they are today.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that scientific knowledge may not be as sound as you think it is. I concur that extreme scepticism here seems stupid: it is true that we may not need to know every detail - we don’t understand everything about atoms, yet nuclear power and nuclear weapons are largely successful. I’m simply encouraging you not to blindly accept everything that is taught to you as ‘fact’. Question it, for who knows: perhaps everything we believe today is as flawed as the general beliefs of 100 years ago.