Unexplaining the unknown: Science’s forgotten power

Roque de los Muchachos Observatory

The hallmark of true science is not its power to explain things, but to unexplain them.

– by B. T. Newberg

Why does so much of popular culture seem to doubt and resent science?  Perhaps it is because, in public perception, it has lost its natural power to evoke the unknown.

Does science explain phenomena in the natural world?  Yes, to a remarkable extent.  But even more so, science unexplains phenomena.  It helps us know what we do not know.  This fact has been forgotten.

All knowledge is provisional

Scientists may not always like to admit it, but modern science is founded upon the assumption that ultimately nothing is known for certain.  The things we claim to know are discovered progressively, with new evidence always capable of overturning old theories.  That implies that every theory, no matter how well-tested, is provisional and subject to uncertainty.

Yet science is not hogwash.  The other founding assumption is that despite the ultimate unreliability of all theories, some are more reliable than others.  Scientific method has been painstakingly crafted to eliminate bias and error as much as possible.  Thus, a theory which is laboratory-tested through hundreds or thousands of double-blind experiments by numerous scientists, each working independently, employing different means to achieve the same results, and having their work rigorously critiqued through the process of peer review, is considerably more than a good hunch.  It is as reliable as humanly possible.

Still, it is not good science unless it is acknowledged, implicitly or explicitly, that there remains a margin for error.  That’s what separates science from dogma.  The hallmark of true science is not its power to explain things, but to unexplain them.


By unexplaining, I mean explaining why current explanations don’t fully explain.

Here’s a recent example.  In March of 2010, a finger bone fragment of a new hominid ancestor, distinct from Neanderthals and modern humans, was discovered in the Denisova cave of Russia.  DNA analysis then made it appear likely that some 5% of the genes of Melanesians are inherited from these Denisovans.  Through these discoveries, we learned that what we had previously thought about our ancestry was wrong.  Clearly, we had and continue to have a lot more to learn.  Our evolutionary history was thereby unexplained.  Even as we learned a little more than we knew before, the sense of the unknown that lied before us was evoked.

This power of science is often totally obscured.  Instead, there is a tendency among science enthusiasts to close ranks against skeptics and present the impression of complete certainty.

Let me illustrate with a personal story.  I once wrote a detailed question about speciation in evolution, and submitted it to several email lists frequented by science enthusiasts.  The precise question isn’t important here; what’s important was the response.  Overwhelmingly, I was labeled a Creationist.  Why?  Because I expressed uncertainty about an aspect of evolutionary theory.  In the current climate around that particular issue, there was no room for questioning.  Ranks closed to present the impression of absolute certainty – or in other words, dogma.

There’s a caveat, though.  The people who labeled me a Creationist were not professional scientists.  They were science enthusiasts.  That may be a crucial consideration.  Trained, professional scientists may understand the provisional nature of their work, but is that idea common beyond the lab?  How has it come to pass that the power of science to unexplain has failed to filter down into popular culture?

There was an age in history when the unknown was inspiring and humbling.  Nowadays, it is too often dismissed as the soon-to-be-known, or the not-worth-knowing.  Our culture has lost the power to unexplain.  And that has had consequences.

Betrayed by science

I’ve met a lot of people who hold a grudge against science, as if it’s lied to them.  One man recently bewailed scientists as saying one thing one day, another the next.  “First they said margarine was good for us, now they say it’s bad!”

You can probably think of any number of other similar examples you’ve heard around the watercooler.  What causes cancer and what’s behind climate change are two topics likely to incite resentment against scientists in recent years.

There’s a certain logic to the argument.  Since new discoveries reveal as false what was once trusted as true, they are lamented rather than lauded.  People feel betrayed.

What seems to be missing here is an appreciation of the fact that all scientific theories are provisional.  It is misguided to trust them so much that new evidence to the contrary feels like a betrayal.  It’s true we must trust them, even trust them with our very lives, because we have nothing better on which to base decisions.  Yet without an appreciation of their ultimate uncertainty, we are bound to expect too much, and end up holding a grudge.

A better way?

What would a more healthy attitude toward science look like?  To answer this, I turn to a perhaps unlikely source.  A friend of mine is a Vodou priest.  Recently I challenged his belief in the supernatural, and he gave a surprisingly rational and empirical response.

“Things in my house move around,” he said, throwing his hands up in a shrug.  He acknowledged he could be in error, or hallucinating.  He acknowledged that although Vodou gives him a practical framework within which to understand his world, many aspects of it are probably false.  Ultimately, he doesn’t know the truth of things with any certainty.

I wish more science enthusiasts would take the same attitude toward science.

Mind the gap

It’s probably important to reiterate here what was said earlier about some theories being more reliable than others.  We should not all take up belief in the supernatural just because we don’t ultimately know the truth.  That’s called a “God of the gaps” theory, where a gap in knowledge is taken as excuse to believe something without evidence.  It’s just another form of explaining away, when what we should be doing is unexplaining.  We should, like my friend, simply acknowledge the gap.

What was most remarkable about my friend was his willingness to unexplain his beliefs.  In that respect, I respect him more than I respect a lot of science enthusiasts who sincerely believe they’ve got hold of the real thing – Truth with a capital T.  Genuine science is the demolition of all capital T’s, and acceptance of the provisional nature of truth.

Perhaps if we can find a way to raise this aspect of science to popular consciousness, there will be less doubt and resentment.  Science writers and educators should devote less time to explaining, and more to unexplaining.

Only then may science reclaim its natural power to evoke the unknown.

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17 Comments on “Unexplaining the unknown: Science’s forgotten power

  1. Mr. Newberg,

    What an excellent article! As someone born, raised & educated in scientific culture, I have personally seen all your points in action countless times.

    When science highlights what we do not understand, it creates awe (for me, at least). Finding a thread of understanding creates newer, deeper questions, more paths to exploring the unknown. This is the essence of science, to explore ever onward, not to find some rote, overarching explanation of things (dogma).

    My experience is that most “Trained, professional scientists” DO “understand the provisional nature of their work,” unless their egos get in the way. (Which happens plenty because we are human.) In general, I think most researchers find an excitement in the free fall of not knowing “everything,” not working with absolutes.

    There have been plenty of times when I have lamented popular/public access to scientific information, not because I want people to remain uninformed, but because it pains me to see how scientific information is so misunderstood, misconstrued & misused in popular culture. Humans find comfort in the incontrovertible. Science is not absolute. People need to find ways to make so to ease their minds. This is a great disservice to the discipline of science & sets them up for betrayal, as you so aptly described it.

    Of course, if science were taught as a discipline & not as an assortment of disparate “facts” to be memorized & regurgitated when appropriate, perhaps we might see less of this “science = Truth” type of thinking.

    Your Vodou friend’s approach to explaining the supernatural struck me as very natural & very pragmatic. It was also incredibly honest — with you, with himself. We can pretend we have the answers all day long, but in the end, we just don’t. Being comfortable with uncertainty opens up an entirely new experience, one I personally relish. There’s an electricity, an elation which is aroused when one is vulnerable. There is a thrill to not knowing, to leaping into the gap with open eyes to find out what dwells there.

    You articulated my own thoughts so well. It was very helpful to read them in another’s voice.Thank you for sharing.

    • >Of course, if science were taught as a discipline & not as an assortment of disparate “facts” to be memorized & regurgitated when appropriate, perhaps we might see less of this “science = Truth” type of thinking.

      Good point. For most of history, science was part of philosophy (under the label “natural philosophy”), and philosophy for much of its history was a discipline of self-discovery, a way of life. The ancient Stoics considered the study of nature (physics) one of the three essential pillars of learning (physics, logic, and epistemology). Perhaps if some of us today returned to that notion of science as a way of life, we’d be better off.

  2. Great article. There is so much more unknown than known. It always amazes me the certainty of many in science and religion that they are the guardians of truth. Scientist’s often become religious dogmatist’s. The religious justify killing to prove who has the most peaceful religion. And the revolutionary almost always becomes worse than the tyrant they overthrow. The man that says,” I’m blind but do not like what I think I see” is considered a fool.

  3. This was great! I have often wanted to write something about scientism vs. science, but I as concerned about being perceived as anti-science too. When I was in undergrad, I had an anthropologist professor who tried to get us to deconstruct the scientistic mythos. We read books like Thomas Kuhn’s *The Structure of Scientific Revolutions* and Phillip Johnson’s *Darwin on Trial*. The latter book is not Creationist, by any account, but merely shows how some scientists and many science enthusiasts treat certain aspects of evolutionary science as articles of faith rather than theories. Thanks for this great essay!

  4. Great post–if only we all had the courage to unexplain our beliefs. I strive for that everyday.

  5. I think the problem is that science has become very politicized. Science is increasingly being used as a weapon for a political and ideological agenda. I think this agenda is clearly stated by John R. Shook’s in this essay “What is Naturalism?” (http://naturalisms.org/): “Philosophical naturalism undertakes the responsibility for elaborating a comprehensive and coherent worldview based on experience, reason, and science, and for defending science’s exclusive right to explore and theorize about all of reality, without any interference from tradition, superstition, mysticism, religious dogmatism, or priestly authority… Naturalistic philosophy constructs and maintains a liberal political order protecting science.”

    I am reminded of Plato’s philosopher-kings. It seem that Shook and others who hold this view believe that science and its devotees are the only qualified people to run society and that a properly run society would be one that advances the liberal political agenda. Science (probably better described as scientism) used in this way becomes much more dogmatic and divisive. In this battle admitting any uncertainty is to lose ground and give the opposition some legitimacy.

  6. Hmm… yes. I see what you’re saying. I take it the objectionable terms there are “exclusive” and “liberal.” a description of a universal-sounding philosophical position.

    >In this battle admitting any uncertainty is to lose ground and give the opposition some legitimacy.

    Ironically, refusing to admit uncertainty loses the most ground of all. It gives up the rational high ground by descending to something logically indefensible, providing opponents a fully-warranted reason to criticize.

    • I think Shook’s statement is all about the cultural wars. Science and religion have almost become like totems around which the two sides rally. When something becomes the defining criteria of group membership, it becomes well a “sacred cow” and to criticize it is to criticize the foundation of the group and to express potential disloyalty to the group. I think this is why any criticism of evolutionary theory can get you in hot water among certain science devotees. This polarization of science and religion by political factions is really bad for society, bad for science and bad for religion.

      Science is a great and powerful tool, our best method for teasing out the truth, but it is not without flaws. Science is supposed to be unbiased based solely on empirically verified facts, but science is not unbiased. The questions asked, the methods used and the interpretation of results all leave a lot of room for human biases to shape conclusions. Lawrence Lessig in his book “Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It” quotes the conclusions of a 2007 paper published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives which compared the results of studies on controlled exposure to radio-frequency radiation (radiation from cell phones) based on funding sources. The article concluded that “studies funded exclusively by industry were indeed substantially less likely to report statistically significant effects on a range of end points that may be relevant to health….single-source sponsorship is associated with outcomes that favor the sponsors’ products.” Human biases are also evident in the ways in which the results of science and other facts are used. Humans select what facts to highlight and what facts to ignore, what facts to trust and what facts to be skeptical of depending on our biases. This is easier than ever as the information age gives us a plethora of sources to use to defend whatever position we might care to hold.

      I certainly do believe that science has and does move us closer to the truth, but your point about the provisional nature of science is a very important one.

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  10. Wonderful Post Brandon! Yes, there certainly should be more unexplaining being done in popular science. Niel Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye would be a couple of folks to message about this. I for one love this aspect – it keeps me wondering whats around the next bend of discovery. What new bend will turns us around to question what we thought we knew? And it should be that way, Nature is a lot more mysterious than a lot of people give it credit for. I don’t ever want to stop learning things about Nature.

    Heck, I’ve even had a similar experience to Urban too. When doing drum circles there came a time when we all heard singing and tried to see who the singer was while playing, and when that song had ended we all asked who was singing? Everyone was questioning each other, but no one had come forward. So, thinking it was a prank while we played again we really kept an eye on each other. Same thing, no one was visibly singing, even though the singing came from right there. We looked into adjacent rooms to see if someone was doing the vent trick. We were alone. Playing again we just went with it, and the singing was there each round after. A few friends came in later from outside and asked who was singing, and we responded, “it was you wasn’t it?” They though we were then playing them. While we played again the singing came back and it was their turn to stare everyone down trying to pin point the singer, and even looking into the adjacent rooms to see for themselves if the culprit was there. No luck. So for the next couple circles we were suspicious, after a while just went with it. We all had heard the same voices singing the same tune. Sometimes masculine, sometimes feminine. It was an interesting experience, one that I actually miss. This is one thing that I can’t explain and remain curious about. Hence me being philosophically agnostic, living atheistically as I don’t worry about the things I cannot confirm. I think its kind of more fun this way – leaving somethings to be unknown and letting what was thought to be known to go back to unknowness. Allowing for rediscovery but of a differing direction.

    • Wow, that’s a doozy, Rua! I wish I could have been there. I have certainly had my share of bizarre experiences and coincidences, but nothing so blatantly confirmed by other witnesses. Out of curiosity, was the singing intelligible words, unintelligible words (like muffled or something), or just a melody?

      • Native Chanting. Which often is not comprised of words. Which is logical considering we were in the Native Center of the College. It became normal for every drum circle there after. But I don’t know if its still like that since I moved.

        • What do you mean “normal for every drum circle there after”? You mean everyone at further drum circles heard it too?

        • After that first time it became the norm, so long as we all played until ‘it felt right’. At least that was the case while I was there, I don’t know if it still is but wouldn’t be surprised.

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