Can science ever be settled?
- Merriam-Webster defines science as “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws.”
- Formulated in the 16th and 17th centuries by Francis Bacon and René Descartes, who “supported the use of inductive reasoning to formulate hypotheses and gain a new understanding of reality,” the scientific method is a “strategy used to try and explain natural science rationally by obtaining and evaluating data.”
- Some examples of ‘settled science’ that are deemed controversial are climate change being man-made, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and vaccines not causing autism.
- A 2021 Gallup Poll revealed that 35% of Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in science, while 11% had “very little.”
Science can never be settled, which is precisely science's point. As scientific researcher Tedd Roberts explains, 'Science is a process, not a conclusion.' Though the Western world likes to view science as a 'settled accomplishment,' in reality, it is a continuous process of learning and growing. There is no such thing as 'proof' in science, but rather, science follows continually changing evidence.
This ever-changing aspect is illustrated in the scientific method itself, which can sometimes lead to consensus and scientific 'laws,' but most often produces theories that can be disproved over time. The method hinges on the premise that new conclusions must be accommodated when new evidence is introduced. In other words, even well-known and cited theories can be disproven when previously unknown information is presented. Because technology is ever-evolving and discoveries are constantly being made, scientific conclusions can never really be settled.
In fact, many widely accepted scientific theories have been debunked, including stomach ulcers developing from stress, immovable continents, a static universe, and phrenology--the study of skull bumps.
Claiming science is settled on anything may lead to Scientism, a dangerous belief claiming that 'science alone can render truth about the world and reality.' When relying so heavily on one system and process, the world can be interpreted only in black and white, with little room for nuance. As astrophysicist Adam Frank explains, 'since science is so good at providing explanations, explanations are all that matter. It's an approach that levels human experience in ways that are both dangerous and sad.'
Finally, it must be noted that a good scientist will question everything, even the science itself.
In an ever-changing world marked by scientific advancements and evolving theories, settled science stands as a testament to the rigorous process underpinning our understanding of the natural world. Settled science refers to theories and conclusions that have withstood the test of time and are universally accepted by the scientific community. These robust findings are supported by several key elements: predictive power, reproducibility, empirical evidence, and practical applications.
Predictive power is a vital component of settled science, as it showcases the ability of a theory to forecast future outcomes or behaviors accurately. This power is a hallmark of well-established scientific principles, such as Newton's laws of motion or Einstein's theory of general relativity.
Reproducibility is another crucial aspect of settled science. When independent researchers can reliably replicate experimental results, it strengthens the validity of the original findings. This replication process eliminates potential biases or errors, ensuring that the scientific community can have confidence in the results.
Empirical evidence is the foundation upon which settled science is built. This evidence is gathered through rigorous observation, experimentation, and data analysis, often involving multiple independent research groups. As empirical evidence accumulates and converges towards a common understanding, a scientific consensus emerges, lending credibility to a given theory or hypothesis.
Lastly, practical applications demonstrate the real-world utility of settled science. For example, the principles of quantum mechanics have given rise to revolutionary technologies such as semiconductors and lasers, while understanding DNA has enabled breakthroughs in genetics and medicine.
In conclusion, settled science is a product of all these components, and these pillars work in harmony to provide a robust foundation for the scientific knowledge that shapes our understanding of the world and propels humanity forward.