Limits to Science

Science is a wonderful thing. It saves us from communicable disease, puts a microwave oven in our kitchen and put a man on the moon. There is no doubt that science done well can produce wonderful results for us.

There are, more or less, two types of science that are commonly used: so called hard science and social science. (There are other more theoretical forms, such as theoretical physics, but I leave that for another time.) Hard science is based on concrete observation of the results of repeatable experiments. No matter how many times you do it, if you apply heat to pure water at sea level it will boil at 100 C. Chemistry, physics, basic biology and various combinations of them (e. g. bio-chemistry) are all examples of the hard sciences.  Soft sciences or social sciences are those that seek to measure human and animal behavior: psychology, sociology, economics, etc. I most often reference social science in my blog posts.

The problem with social science is first that it is often based on correlations of data that may or may not demonstrate an actual causal effect. Second, because culture and human dynamics change with time what social science declares as “fact” in one generation can change in later times. Human behavior can be very changeable.

Well Done vs Sloppy Science

There is a more important distinction in science: that which is done rigorously and carefully and that which is not. Seth Godin recently wrote about this difference between well done science and sloppy science. He cites as one example of sloppy science Eugenics, a science that was well accepted in scientific circles in the 19th century but has been found to be wrong. Sloppy science lacks rigor and lacks sufficient and reliable data to support is conclusions. Seth does a good job of illustrating the difference and providing some good examples.

Scientists are humans. As humans they make mistakes, they can be driven by human weaknesses such as greed, hubris, arrogance, and catering to special interests. When that happens the science that results can be sloppy or just plain wrong, like Eugenics.

Another aspect of good science is that it is subject to continual challenge and revision. Scientists consider this the great advantage of science – it constantly tests our assumptions and changes them as the data requires. Sometimes this is because the rigor is greater, sometimes it is because the technology behind the science is improved. The result is that there is rarely a final scientific fact or conclusion that cannot be challenged. Hard science more often achieves this immutable conclusion, like the boiling point of pure water at sea level. Softer science, or social science, is more subject to refinement and change over time.

For this reason, although we can learn a lot from well done science, including social science, it is almost always subject to change and for that reason we must be very careful about drawing ultimate conclusions based on the current state of science. It can always be refined and improved. We must remember that science has often been wrong. The promise of science is that it will in time correct itself. Science allowed us to fly in heavier than air machines when many scientists said that was impossible. Scientific research and experimentation proved those in science that thought that flying faster than the speed of sound was not possible for living human, as well as those who thought it impossible to enter earth orbit.

It is very dangerous for us to believe that what we currently think is the absolute truth. The hubris that convinces each generation that they have discovered the truth is later overturned by the next Einstein who is not fettered by this belief. Like all human endeavor science is imperfect. It has the capacity to be wrong, even very wrong. I suggest that for this reason we must constantly question what is currently accepted in science. I do not suggest we ignore all science because it could be wrong, but that we maintain a healthy skepticism and curiosity about what is today claimed to be the truth.

Skepticism vs Denial

I do not mean to say here that denial of science is justified. Having a healthy skepticism about what science currently teaches is not the same as denying what the overwhelming evidence demonstrates. To simply deny that the climate is changing or to deny that the theory of evolution has validity are examples of this. One can reserve judgment on every aspect of these scientific findings, but there is no value in denying a large body of good science.

I offer these thoughts with humility because I am often citing science in some of my posts here. While I do believe we can learn much from the science that I cite I also remain aware that there is nothing absolute about that science. It may be right, or partly right, or at times all wrong.

Let us take advantage of what science has to teach us. But let us never be arrogant about it. We can always be wrong.

Wishing you well,

Daniel R. Murphy
Educating people for building wealth, adapting to a changing future and personal development.