Nicholas Lim, Co-founder & Lead Editor of Cogito Collective
We have always been taught to treat authorities as experts on anything. We can’t possibly trawl entire tomes of knowledge in the library of the world by ourselves. Scientists have rightfully been accorded a status of importance in society for their contributions to human knowledge, but their work has always been viewed as esoteric and opaque. The non-specialist’s only entry into the products of scientific inquiry is through reporting in the news or social media, both of which present various problems. There are two traps we can fall into when we try to comprehend scientific knowledge. The first is that science is inherently objective and unchangeable, the other is that science is the answer to everything.
Is science inherently objective and unchangeable?
Let’s first look at the scientific method, a way which scientists get to their conclusions. It is first of all based on rational skepticism, which is a constant questioning of assumptions and examining biases in information presented. While fundamentally empirical (meaning that experiments guide theories), the scientific community constantly reviews each other’s works, question their experimental methods, and tries to find flaws in the data collected. Anyone who’s ever been in debate team in school (and thus was labelled a nerd) knows that simply relying on the opinions of an authority commits the unforgivable crime of argument from authority. It is wrong to assume that experts are always correct on an issue, even though they have been working in that field for years. The history of science is rife with examples like that.
We fall into two traps. The first is that science is inherently objective and unchangeable, the other is that science is the answer to everything.
As an example, let’s examine the concept of heat. It is a prime example of a long, winding history of theories superseding previous theories. The ancient Greeks had the idea of the four natural elements, namely earth, air, fire, and water. That concept held out until the Enlightenment, when scientists then proposed a theory of a substance called phlogiston, which was released upon combustion and thus made its products lighter than the substance itself. Ash is lighter than the wood used to burn it. This theory made sense given the data observed.
Then came Antoine Lavoisier, who in 1783 realised that metals gain weight upon combustion. The burning of iron produces iron oxides, which are heavier than the iron itself. It then led him to devise experiments showing that oxygen had weight, and then proposed a theory suggesting a fluid called caloric that flowed from warm to colder bodies.
In 1845, James Prescott Joule proved that heat was a mechanical phenomenon, which could explain the transfer of heat without the need for an extra substance as a mediator. And with this final stroke, we have the current theory of heat that we still use today. There are still traces of caloric theory in the way we speak of heat, like when we talk about the “flow of heat” and “calories”.
The empirical facts were the same throughout history, but two things changed: the discovery of new data and the interpretations of the existing data. With every new bit of information we feed into science, science adapts and changes its frameworks to fit. This can be explained by considering the scientific endeavour within a statistical framework. Information and facts gathered through observing the world around us will inevitably be interpreted through different lenses, introducing subjectivity to science.
Even the presentation of science is subjective. John Oliver did a piece on it, debunking many studies being reported by half-baked news reporters digging for the next clickbait by grossly misrepresenting reputable research. A study showed that 34% of studies reported by newspapers were eventually disproven. It is simply easy to misreport an article with the title “excess sleep may lead to more fatigue throughout the day” as “scientists have shown we should sleep less”.
Science is even cultural. The methods of thinking about science today are predominantly Western-centric, but that is not to say other cultures around the world have not developed their own scientific cultures. One need only look back at the height of Islamic science under the Ottomans, or Indian scientists like Bose and Raman to see how, under different cultural norms and assumptions, science still flourished independently of Western culture.
Modern science (at least till the advent of the 21st Century) has taken a diversified and specialised approach, where each individual field runs independently and does not need to interact with other fields. However, in recent years, there have been a lot of cross-faculty research going on where scientists now realise they need other people with different ways of seeing problems to partner with. This holistic way of viewing science has fundamentally been the way science has been done from the Mayans to the Australian aboriginals to the Chinese. These ways of thinking, however, have been swept away with the mass colonialization of other cultures and imposition of a Western-centric view of science. We can and should learn a lot from how other cultures approached science and understood nature.
The presentation of science is subjective. It is simply easy to misreport an article with the title “excess sleep may lead to more fatigue throughout the day” as “scientists have shown we should sleep less”.
Is science the answer to everything?
The second trap one can fall into is intellectual hubris, or scientism. Science, as shown above, is fundamentally empirical and is descriptive, not prescriptive. In The Physicist’s Conception of Nature (1955) by Werner Heisenberg, he emphasises that:
a natural science is one whose propositions on limited domains of nature can have only a correspondingly limited validity… modern science, in its beginnings, was characterised by a conscious modesty; it made statements about strictly limited relations that are only valid within the framework of these limitations.The Physicist’s Conception of Nature (1955) by Werner Heisenberg
The nature of science is that prevailing theories are constantly being superseded by better theories, and only remain true within certain validities. It is foolhardy at best to treat science as a panacea for all of life’s maladies, because there are limits to the things that science can describe. This is an important framework especially when presented with information like miracle cures, because each problem has its own separate cause, and cannot be brushed aside with the same brushstroke.
The problem with putting science on a pedestal is that one will get stuck in a closed feedback loop and dismissing other theories as wrong. Science is a continuous endeavour, and should be treated as such. On one hand, it is all too common for people on comment sections to constantly rely on science to back up every possible argument, from the anti-vaccination movement to flat-earth societies. On the other hand, there have been theories which have been considered absolutely preposterous historically that have been proven to be the keys to unlock previously impenetrable gateways. The textbook example of that would be the cosmological constant, which Einstein reportedly said was his “greatest blunder”. It is now used as a way to track fluctuations in space and the mysterious “dark energy”.
This is especially prevalent when (pseudo-)intellectuals try to advance their personal ideologies in the name of “science”. One only need recall the way the Nazi regime misused genetics to support a racist “science” to see this in action. Another area one can see it today is in militant atheism and overzealous religious apostles, both of whom can be guilty of pushing for an agenda under the veil of cosmology or advocating for creationism at the expense of evolution. By insisting on their viewpoints and not giving others the benefit of the doubt, it is difficult to progress in knowledge. Science should be conscious of its limits, and we should be too. Treading the middle ground through blind faith in science and reckless skepticism is the mark of a scholar.
The textbook example of that would be the cosmological constant, which Einstein reportedly said was his “greatest blunder”. It is now used as a way to track fluctuations in space and the mysterious “dark energy”.
After deconstructing the nature of scientific pursuits, how then should we gain insight from the sciences? The answer lies at the starting point, the original intention of the scientific method — rational skepticism. By treating what you read online as data, perform experiments by measuring it against other sources, and analyse the data through the filters of logical analysis before finally deciding if the information is accurate. If this seems like a lot of work, it is. As the Chinese proverb goes, the acquisition of knowledge is like rowing against the waves.
Therefore, scientific information presented should be treated with a certain level of skepticism, and should not simply be taken as a monolithic truth. This is not to say, however, that we should not trust science completely. We just have to be more stringent in our absorption of information, and to do the due diligence before accepting what is being transmitted. Science is an ongoing pursuit of knowledge and truth, and should not be treated as a closed area of knowledge in which the last full stop is final.
About the author:
Nicholas Lim is the co-founder and lead editor of Cogito. His bachelor’s thesis was on the hierarchy problem and supersymmetry, and he hopes to pursue a Ph.D in the near future.
References can be requested at firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image: The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp by Rembrandt
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