Don’t Assume Science and Reality Are Equivalent
Scientists and philosophers have questioned for centuries if science is a true reflection of reality. Most just assume it is.
Last week, Science Magazine reviewed a book that shook up the science world in 1979: Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar. In his review titled “Arbiters of truth, then and now,” Joseph Swift re-introduced a question that has dogged science for centuries, even as far back as Plato and Aristotle: is science an accurate reflection of external reality?
The question seems absurd to many people. Of course it is, they assume, rattling off a list of technological innovations that sprang from science: refrigerators (confirming thermodynamics), space heaters (confirming electrodynamics), lasers (confirming quantum theory), and atom bombs (confirming relativity and atomic theory). Why even doubt that science reflects reality? The question is much more nuanced than initial impressions suppose.
Surprisingly, Swift readily acknowledges the problem. In their 1979 book, when “social construction” theory was rising, Latour and Woolgar doubted whether cell biologists were “discovering” reality instead of “manufacturing” it. They observed scientists at the Scripps Institute and how they worked. Basically, Latour and Woolgar turned scientists into their lab rats. Swift says,
During his time in Guillemin’s lab, Latour noticed the defining role that language played in bringing well-hidden facts to light. He argued that it was not the experiment per se but the scientist’s interpretation of an experiment’s result that made phenomena real.
Latour watched how scientists debated and discussed their “findings.” He concluded that the point where scientists reached a consensus appeared arbitrary. Naturally, “Scientists found this troubling.” The social constructionists began deconstructing not only science, but art and literature, claiming that what these experts said was not truth but interpretation. After the social construction movement was spent, scientists dug in with a return to “scientific realism” that assumed that their work accurately reflects reality, and that is the situation largely today, even though the postmodernism spawned in the 1970s and 1980s survives in cultural contexts.
Pragmatism Is Not Reality
The philosophers of science, however, were not convinced. They remind scientists of a long history of doubt about science and the nature of reality by leading scientists and philosophers. Logical positivism, a strong attempt to equate science with reality, failed in the 1930s. One problem is that something may “work” without being “True” with a capital T. You can treat light as a particle in one experiment, and it works. You can treat it as a wave in another experiment, and that works. But what is light? To this day, after decades of quantum theory and nuclear physics, we don’t know. Scientists take “wave/particle duality” as a given, but do not understand it. Many other things in science are useful but not necessarily true. Pragmatism is not the same as realism.
Science Is Historical
In addition, science has an intrinsic historicity. Did the neutron exist before it was discovered? While the intuitive answer is, “Yes, of course; it was there all the time,” scientific objects do not exist until they are defined, and there was no definition of a neutron, or an electron, or a neutrino, until those particles were defined by the theory that incorporated them to explain certain observations. People oblivious to neutrons in the 19th century and prior were very comfortable with their concept of reality in their day, but was it true? Phlogiston was “real” until it was overturned by oxygen theory. Newton’s concepts of space, mass and time were not just improved on by Einstein, but replaced. The Ptolemaic system was real until it was replaced by the Copernican system, even though Ptolemy’s system worked for most human needs throughout its 1,500-year tenure. Here’s the lesson for us: We don’t know how many theories scientists believe in today are ripe for replacement in the future. The concepts of a “gene” or a “species” are ones to watch.
Another issue is that science routinely deals with unobservable realities, like black holes, the interiors of stars, the core of the Earth, dark matter and dark energy, and much more. Some of these are placeholders for ignorance, because they work for the consensus paradigm of the day. Einstein famously inserted a fudge factor, the Cosmological Constant, into his equations, in order to maintain the static universe he believed in at the time. He called that the biggest mistake of his life. But later, the Cosmological Constant made another appearance within a different paradigm.
Looking back at Latour’s bombshell book about the “social construction” of science, Swift ends with this optimistic opinion:
Forty years after its publication, Laboratory Life remains prescient in its ability to encourage scientists to see that descriptions of reality and reality itself are not the same thing. The gap that separates the two can, however, be made smaller by good science. While we may never touch reality, we can certainly get very close.
Thus Swift acknowledges that science and reality are not the same. But what is “good science”? How can the scientist reach outside the theory in order to judge that it is good? Swift is just whistling a cheerful tune in the dark here.
Realism About Reality
James Zimring is less optimistic in his new book, What Science Is and How It Really Works, which he introduces in The Scientist. Although he is a practicing scientist, he is well aware of the pitfalls of “affirming the consequent,” a logical fallacy that assumes the effect of a cause is the true cause. Examples of scientists misled by this fallacy are legion. Zimring acknowledges, “scientific theories are always underdetermined by the available data.”
This is not “ivory-tower semantics,” Zimring asserts, as he gives examples of both good and bad predictions that were assumed to identify real causes. Like Swift, Zimring doesn’t want to give fodder to the “anti-science rhetoric” in social media, but but he insists we have to face the ‘reality’ that science is not necessarily about truth. He concludes,
One could argue that we live in a time of sound bites and simplicity that cannot tolerate nuanced thinking. If scientists don’t bang the gong of “truth,” then it may only hasten the dismissal of science as just another opinion. However, I would argue that this position does not give the intended audience enough credit, and that claiming absolute truth ultimately does more harm than good, not only for the interface of science with the public, but for the practice of science. If data are sacrosanct to the sciences, then let us embrace the historical data on science itself.
An excerpt of Zimring’s book has been posted separately on The Scientist. In it, Zimring discusses examples of “phantom entities” (what we called “occult forces” and “unobservable reality” above) that “never have existed at all, other than the idea of them.” Zimring accuses today’s science of having its own phlogistons. One cannot use the success of a theory, he says, to judge it is correct in the sense of absolutely true.
One of the very worst occult forces in science today is Natural Selection. It explains everything; therefore it must be true, evolutionary biologists insist. We have shown over and over that NS is a vacuous concept, a tautology, equivalent to the Stuff Happens Law (e.g., Nov 14-15, 2019). Think about it as you read Zimring’s articles.
If you are interested in exploring more of the science-vs-reality debate, I have found great value in the course “Science Wars: What Scientists Know and How They Know It” by Steven Goldman (Lehigh U), offered by The Teaching Company. In 24 half-hour lectures, Goldman traces the debate from the Greeks to the present day, and exhibits detailed knowledge of theories in astronomy, relativity, quantum theory and much more, from which he draws many examples. You’ll learn a lot about the history of science, and find out at the end why the debate is not resolved, and probably never will be.
- Note: The course is frequently on sale, and MP3 download is sufficient for most people.
One caution: Goldman gives a bad review of Intelligent Design in lecture 23, showing his bias, but in so doing violates some of the very principles he taught in earlier lectures! For instance, he agrees there are no criteria for separating science from pseudoscience, but then claims that scientists are qualified to decide what is science. That is absurd; they are among the least qualified to do so, since many of them are highly invested in their own paradigms, and have never studied philosophy of science. There is an upside to listening to him, though; it can be an exercise in practicing the baloney-detecting skills you have learned here at CEH. (For more rebuttal, you can buy the lecture series on Intelligent Design by Michael Behe, Goldman’s colleague at Lehigh. Behe responds in detail to many of the criticisms against ID.)