– 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.