The Truth about Truth in Science; or Science as Religious Dogma

19 Sep

Kant may have placed science in a separate category of knowledge; one where Truth is discoverable, unlike knowledge gleaned from ethics or religion.  But, as Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his book Structures of Scientific Thinking, reality about Truth in science is quite muddled.  Henry Gee, senior editor of the journal Nature, writes about this issue in The Gaurdian.  An excerpt:

All scientific results are in their nature provisional – they can be nothing else. Someone will come along, either the next day or the next decade, with further refinements, new methods, more nuanced ways of looking at old problems, and, quelle surprise, find that conclusions based on earlier results were simplistic, rough-hewn – even wrong.

The problem is that we (not the royal we, but the great unwashed lay public who won’t know the difference between an eppendorf tube and an entrenching tool) are told, very often, and by people who ought to know better, that science is a one-way street of ever-advancing progress, a zero-sum game in which facts are accumulated and ignorance dispelled. In reality, the more we discover, the more we realise we don’t know. Science is not so much about knowledge as doubt. Never in the field of human inquiry have so many known so little about so much.

If this all sounds rather rarefied, consider science at its most practical. As discussed in Dr McLain’s article and the comments subjacent, scientific experiments don’t end with a holy grail so much as an estimate of probability. For example, one might be able to accord a value to one’s conclusion not of “yes” or “no” but “P<0.05”, which means that the result has a less than one in 20 chance of being a fluke. That doesn’t mean it’s “right”.

One thing that never gets emphasised enough in science, or in schools, or anywhere else, is that no matter how fancy-schmancy your statistical technique, the output is always a probability level (a P-value), the “significance” of which is left for you to judge – based on nothing more concrete or substantive than a feeling, based on the imponderables of personal or shared experience. Statistics, and therefore science, can only advise on probability – they cannot determine The Truth. And Truth, with a capital T, is forever just beyond one’s grasp.

Full article here




%d bloggers like this: