Sunday, June 24, 2012
The core of Science: Being self-critical
One of the central theorems of science is being self-critical and to stay open to the idea that whatever the current consensus is, in whatever subject, things may change down the road. In the history of science this has happened many times, perhaps most clearly in the field of physics where we have gone from a geo-centric view of the universe (with the earth as the center), to a heliocentric universe with the sun in the middle.
Newton later described, very accurately, the laws that governed the universe and using these laws allowed us to predict, to an impressive degree, how the planets, stars, and other objects in space move. Despite this success, Newton turned out to be wrong of course and Einstein turned out to be right, or at least more right than Newton was.
Does the fact that Einsteins theory have correctly predicted experimental outcomes up to a gazillion decimals mean that he is definitely right? No, only a religious person would take such a stance. If you are a good scientist you stay open to the idea that there may be even better and more exact theories up ahead. All we really know is that Einsteins theory predicts what will happen in the Universe we live in to an impressive degree, and that this is very useful when designing say computers or GPS satellites.
When I discuss whether science is really like I what I have just described, I often hear the critique that scientists are just people, that they have narrow-minded beliefs just like anyone else, and that there are corrupt persons on key positions in science as well. I think this is all true (although I don't think there is as much corruption in Science as there is in politics), however, what is different is that you can ask (almost) any scientist whether this or that theory is definitely true and he or she is very likely to say no. In other words, even though many scientists cling on to certain theories and ideas, they tend to stay open to the idea that it is wrong, and they stay open to the idea that if the right evidence comes in, they will change their beliefs. The examples above (and there are many more from all fields of science), also show that science does in fact change over time
This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the world of religion where it is claimed that one book presents the truth, i.e., they don't say that if so and so, then I guess there is no God(s). Religion is based on faith which is beliefs that are not based on logic or observations. This is what, at the core separates science from religion and it is a very important distinction to make in my mind.