Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Science Doesn't Know Everything

Have you ever heard someone say that science doesn’t know everything? I hear it often when a someone is trying to explain something based on science. A listener may nod sagely and respond with the above observation. For example, at a party someone mentions they have found that psychics are really good at what they do. Eventually, someone else will say there is absolutely no scientific evidence that psychics can do what they claim to do: talk to dead people, read the future, know something private about someone they have never met. The person who finds psychics helpful will retort that it doesn’t make any difference that science doesn’t support psychics because "science doesn’t know everything."

This actually is a correct statement. Every scientist I have known has readily admitted that as a scientist they cannot explain everything. Not even close to everything. Why would a smart scientist admit such a thing? Doesn’t this just bolster the notion that science is not such a big deal after all? Even the great Einstein said, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."

Wow! How could such a hard-headed egghead make such an admission? It’s because the job of science is to probe the mysteries of life and the universe. Science is always wandering into areas that are not understood or not yet explained. They can do this because the tools they use are the most powerful ever developed by the human mind. Who would have ever thought that we would even attempt to try understand emotions such as love or even the nature of consciousness? Yet, this is what psychologists around the world attempt to understand daily.

But, since science can’t explain everything, doesn’t this take the glow off the adoration that people have towards science? Not really. The average person loves absolutes, but science does not deal in the absolute. Instead of concentrating on "everything" what if we were to emphasize what science can actually explain. Think about what humans did not know before the advent of science about 400 years ago.

Contributions of Science
Here are some discovers made by scientists in the early years:

  • Johannes Kepler (1609) was able to figure out that the planets in our solar system had orbits that were elliptical. Prior to this everyone knew (because Aristotle said so) that the orbits were circular.

  • William Harvey (1628) found out how blood was circulated through the body. His discovery was the beginning of modern physiology.

  • Robert Boyle (1661) made an important distinction between alchemy and chemistry. He introduced the concept of earth’s building blocks, the elements, and helped found the new science of chemistry.

  • Isaac Newton (1687) revolutionized how we understood our world. He was able to show us that natural laws exist in nature. For example, the three laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation.

  • Edmund Halley (1758) was the first person to accurately predict the appearance of a specific comet.

  • Joseph Priestley (1774) found out through the scientific method that the air we breath is made up of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

  • Richard Trevithick (1804) was able to use the principles of science to invent the steam locomotive.

  • Michael Faraday (1823) was the first person who was able to turn a liquid into a gas.

  • Friedrich Wilhelm Essel (1838) used science to shrink the size of our solar system by finding out that a star, 61 Cygni, turned out to be 35 quadrillion miles away. It is so far that it takes six years for the star’s light to reach us.

  • Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1847) gathered enough scientific data to show that the total amount of energy in the universe was constant. This came to be known as the law of conservation of energy and was later called the first law of thermodynamics.

  • Charles Darwin (1858) published The Origen of Species which rocked the world of science and became the basis for a new biology. Some scientists consider his painstaking data collection and conclusions to be the equivalent of the accomplishments of the great Isaac Newton.

  • William Huggins (1863) discovered that everything was made up of the same elements.

  • Alexander Graham Bell (1876) invented the telephone.

  • Charles-Louis-Alphonse Laveran (1880) isolated the microorganism that causes malaria.

This is an incredibly small sampling of what science discovered in its first two hundred years. From then on the scientific discoveries came faster and faster. The speed of light was measured at 186,000 miles per second. The bacterium that caused tuberculosis was found. A vehicle was designed to be driven by internal combustion. More elements were discovered. Science found out about radio waves.

You get the idea. We haven’t even listed any discoveries of the twentieth century. You may want to think of the contributions that science made in the last hundred years. As you make your list, you will notice that the rate of discovery is accelerating.

The Power of Prediction
Anyone can make predictions. And many have tried. Market analysts are constantly making predictions about what direction the market will take. Some religious people love to predict the end of the earth. Psychics make predictions of what will happen in the future: meeting someone to fall in love with; natural disasters; what is going to happen to famous people in the next year.
It only takes a few minutes of reflection to realize how inaccurate nonscientific predictions are. If you listen to the talking heads on the financial channels you will quickly notice that everyone contradicts everyone else. One says the market will soar in the next year, while the next expert says we will have a financial melt down.

Christianity has a long list of dates when momentous events were supposed to happen but didn’t. One of the favorite predictions by "end times" Christians is the date of the world’s end (the rapture): a dozen predictions were made that 1988 would be the year of earth’s demise. Even the great apostle Paul predicted that Jesus would return in his lifetime.

For many years an acquaintance of mine would cull all the tabloids on January 1st in order to list all the predictions psychics made for the coming year. On December 31, he would publish the predictions. Year after year, every psychic failed to make a single prediction that came true. Yet, year after year people continue to be amazed at the non-predictions of psychics.

Only scientists consistently make accurate predictions. Of course they cannot do this with 100% accuracy because the data they use is sometimes faulty or skimpy. What other group or institution could predict within minutes the sunrise for any date in the distant future? What other group devised a tool that can predict—with an 87 accuracy—which newlywed couple will divorce? What other non-scientific organization can accurately determine the age of the earth and its moon?

The answer, of course, is that only scientists can accomplish these amazingly difficult tasks. Many other organizations have attempted through the millennia to explain how nature works. Philosophers have debated and disagreed among themselves how things are. Theologians try to explain life but have no data to back it up so find themselves fractured and disagreeing vigorously between each other.

Since the dawning of humans on our planet people have tried many methods to discover the truth about life and the world in which we live. Humans have tried to increase knowledge by an appeal to authority and this works sometimes. However, smart authority figures still make mistakes because of the biases built into the human brain. This may explain why so many intelligent people will follow the lead of a powerful figure: Jim Jones and Adolf Hitler are only two examples of the power of authority. Authority figures usually have a public platform they can use to constantly pass on ideas and information to their followers. the problem with this is that experiments have shown us that simply repeating a false statement over and over leads people to believe that it is true. Accepting the words of an authority figure must be done cautiously.

Societies have used tradition to establish what we must believe and how we must behave. One problem with tradition is that each new generation wants to put its own stamp on the traditions of their elders. This introduces differences between the old traditions and the new traditions. Another problem is that each culture has its own tradition. No matter how revered the traditions are they often contradict one another — they can’t all be right.

Humans love to decide what is right and true by attending to testimonials. This is why advertising relies so heavily on testimonials. Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist and author of the powerful book Influence, discovered that people make decisions on what to believe or how to act by looking at what other people believe. If they know or like the other person they are even more likely to be persuaded to adopt the other person’s beliefs. Advertising has made us cynical because we all know that famous people are paid enormous sums of money to say what the advertiser wants them to say. Nevertheless, testimonials still convince people to believe the unbelievable.

In more recent times, humans have turned to majority opinion to determine what is right. Although this works sometimes, we have also discovered what is called the "tyranny of the majority"—when a majority of people decide that wrong is right. Slavery is an excellent example of majority opinion going down the wrong path.

Faith is another method for determining what is right and good. Yet even faith has its limitations. Since faith is defined as "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen," each person or group of individuals can believe what they want without any evidence to back it up. Some people believe that God will heal their sick child even when the parents avoid any medical intervention. This kind of faith almost always ends in disaster and grief. As philosophers often disagree, people of faith disagree, sometimes violently, with people of a differing faith. To guard against someone else’s faith interfering with their own, many people declare that their faith is the only true faith. When thousands of groups demand that their version of faith is right (orthodox) and all other faiths are heretical, something must be amiss. How can everyone be right at the same that everyone is wrong?

A more recent style of discovering truth is the use of personal experience. Have you ever heard someone say, "I don’t care what the evidence is, I know what I believe." People who believe they have seen or experienced a UFO from somewhere outside our solar system or galaxy use this method a lot. "You can tell me all you want about how impossible it is for someone that far away to get to our planet, but you can’t convince me that I didn’t experience it." If personal experience is the final word, we are all in trouble. It only takes two people to be in the same location for a disagreement to arise. With six billion people on planet earth, there is a lot of divergent experience.

All of these methods for finding knowledge are flawed in that they have extremely high error rates. When the scientific method became a viable option, people realized that science was now the method with the lowest error rate. Though not perfect, science has reduced human error dramatically. Scientists are trained to put aside all the above methods for increasing knowledge.

When they do this (even though they also can slip up) the results are stunning. What other organization of people have given us the wonders of modern medicine? No other group. What other collection of humans have discovered how the world operates? There aren’t any. Science is the only organization that has made any significant contribution towards increased life expectancy. Science alone has shown us how vast our universe is. Only science can explain the microscopic world of molecules, atoms and leptons. Will power and determination did not land people on the moon — scientists did that.

More importantly, only science is willing to say, "we were wrong" because that is the nature of science. By definition every scientist is supposed to be skeptical of the work of all other scientists. Science is not a method driven by opinion, faith, authority, or majority vote. No association of scientists voted on whether or not to believe in gravity. The secret of science’s amazing productivity is the reliance on what the evidence says. When scientists disagree it is because the evidence is not yet complete.

Science doesn’t know everything and never will. Science is based on understanding the unknown by letting the unknown speak forth its truths. Once the unknown is known the scientist moves on to the next unknown. Why will science never finish its job? The editors of The Encyclopedia of Ignorance wrote, "Compared to the pond of knowledge, our ignorance remains atlantic. Indeed the horizon of the unknown recedes as we approach it." This is the job of science—to light candles in the darkness of our ignorance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Science KNOWS it doens't know everything, otherwise it would just stop" - Dara 'O Brain