If Science Cannot Prove Anything, What Is Its Value?
An educator defends science while an astrophysicist undermines it.
Two articles on the Conversation website, put together, ask us to promote science because it can’t prove anything. That’s an odd combination. Let’s take a look.
On The Conversation article #1 (4/15/15), Rod Lamberts of the Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science presents a typical science-as-progress, science-as-truth argument for why people should value science and support it through government largesse. What’s science’s value? “It’s not always about the money,” he says. He offers five values that come from science:
- Testing and presenting ideas and the great tools to do it.
- Scientific reasoning protects us and saves us from ourselves.
- Inspire, motivate, and delight.
- Challenging the status quo and inspiring reflection.
- Meaning, worth, and expressing the best of ourselves.
While it’s true that some scientists sometimes do these things, a question Lamberts does not address is whether science alone can advertise these benefits. One could find theologians, historians, or the pastor of a local Baptist church, in his Sunday sermon, fulfilling all or some of them. The only unique benefit Lamberts offers about science (point #1) involves the so-called “scientific method,” which he portrays idealistically at a high-school level:
The mechanisms of scientific enterprise have proven their worth time and again. The formulation of challengeable hypotheses, and the increasingly sophisticated methods we use to test them, have repeatedly been confirmed as the most potent tools for finding out things about our world.
The scientific method has helped us make sense of the world in a way that counters our natural tendencies to make connections and draw conclusions that simply aren’t true.
For example, the issue of correlation and causation, and how we regularly mess this up if we don’t apply rigorous scientific and statistical reasoning.
Each one of these assertions could be challenged by a lower-division philosophy of science professor. While the “mechanisms” and “scientific method” sound lovely in theory, in practice, real scientists are human and subject to biases. Scientific methods are not fixed in stone; they evolve and mutate by artificial selection (3/11/15). Some scientific ideas, like Darwinian evolution, are impervious to challenge, as some can attest. Scientists tend to work in institutional communities that often force facts into paradigms despite the evidence. For an example of how scientists can cling to a paradigm despite multiple falsifications and failed predictions, see Real Science Radio‘s list of failed predictions for the Big Bang theory, especially the first video clip from Fermilab about “Big bang’s missing antimatter.” Despite their mathematical wizardry and education, top scientists are not immune to dogmatism.
Causation, likewise, has been challenged at least since Hume. Lamberts has jumbled and mangled multiple concepts together in this porridge of scientific idealism dished out uncritically. As for “rigorous reasoning,” that belongs in any scholarly field, not just science. Moreover, rigor and reasoning are moral and logical requirements for science, not products of science or of a mechanical method. Is it good to use reason? Is it evil to be lazy (to lack rigor)? Those are theological questions.
This is not to imply that governments should not fund research they feel is in their self-interest, but certainly democratic people should have a say in how their money is spent. Nothing stops a scientist or an institution from raising their own money for what they want to study.
Proof or Goof?
A more reasoned presentation of science is in The Conversation article #2, by astrophysicist Geraint Lewis. You can tell where he’s going by his headline, “Where is the proof in science? There is none.” He ends with a quote from Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, “I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything.” Lewis shows himself keenly aware of the principle that scientific views are tentative at best.
So, science is like an ongoing courtroom drama, with a continual stream of evidence being presented to the jury. But there is no single suspect and new suspects regularly wheeled in. In light of the growing evidence, the jury is constantly updating its view of who is responsible for the data.
But no verdict of absolute guilt or innocence is ever returned, as evidence is continually gathered and more suspects are paraded in front of the court. All the jury can do is decide that one suspect is more guilty than another.
Even the mathematics in much of science cannot provide certainty. The elegance of mathematics does not, by itself, assure correspondence with reality. That requires evidence. But the ability to obtain evidence is “limited by technologies and uncertainties,” he points out. Some of our beliefs have grown stronger, but we cannot say they are proven. We have a pretty good grasp on gravity, he thinks, but not on string theory.
In the mathematical sense, despite all the years of researching the way the universe works, science has proved nothing.
Every theoretical model is a good description of the universe around us, at least within some range of scales that it is useful.
But exploring into new territories reveals deficiencies that lower our belief in whether a particular description continues to accurately represent our experiments, while our belief in alternatives can [sic, has] grown….
While our degree of belief in some mathematical models may get stronger and stronger, without an infinite amount of testing, how can we ever be sure they are reality?
Both articles generated lively sets of comments.
We remind these conversationalists of what C. S. Lewis said; there is no such thing as “scientific reasoning.” There is only “logical reasoning,” and that needs to apply to all inquiry, whether historical, mathematical, or theological. Scientific reasoning—even about evidence—presupposes a sincere love of the truth and a desire to pursue and present it honestly. Without theological foundations for reason and rigor, science would be impossible. Science is essentially a theological enterprise. It would be unscientific to saw off the branch on which one sits.