Sidebar: Pandemics of Falsehood

The Scientific Antidote

By Jacob L. Fine

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but some opinions are simply not true. Nowadays anyone with access to internet connection can spread falsehoods faster than disease outbreaks. The one tool we have to deal with these pandemics of misinformation can be summarized in one Latin phrase first used during the foundation of the Royal Society in 1660: Nullius in verba – or, “take nobody’s word for it.”  

This principle really describes what the scientific method is all about. Science, coming from the Latin word scientia meaning “knowledge” places truth seeking above all else. The scientific method demands the elimination of bias, subjectivity, and wishful thinking. There is no such thing as a scientific fact that has not withstood rigorous testing, criticism, and scrutiny. But why is the scientific method the best tool we have for probing the nature of reality?

To answer the question above, we must first consider the unreliability of human intuition for discerning facts about reality. What conclusions would we come to if we relied only on our intuition and senses? To truly understand how this would turn out, you must first momentarily forget all of your 21st century post-Enlightenment knowledge. To our senses the Earth appears to be flat with the sun, moon and stars going around it. Evidently, countless pre-Enlightenment people believed these things. Now it just seems so obvious that germs and pathogens (like the coronavirus) cause disease. But even this knowledge is taken for granted. It was not until Louis Pasteur in the 19th century that the so-called “spontaneous generation” of small microbes from inanimate matter was conclusively disproven. If you lived before Pasteur, you probably would have just assumed that microbes and life arise though some mysterious “life-force” acting on inanimate matter.

Darwin’s theory of evolution, Wegener’s theory of continental drift, and Einstein’s theory of relativity are all strikingly counter-intuitive facts about reality. Had we relied only on our senses, discerning these facts would simply be impossible. Our intuitions tell us that species are immutable, time is absolute, and continents are static. We now know these intuitions to be false and misleading. As Richard Feynman puts it, “the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man.”

To do science is to make increasingly better models of reality though experimentation and observation. We must rely on advanced equipment to probe the ever-increasing depths of complexity in our universe. Our eyes are no match for microscopes and telescopes.

One common misperception is that science cannot be trusted because it always changes. The problem with this view is that it ignores the brute fact that knowledge is necessarily limited. No one has all of the answers. No one has sufficiently explained the origin of life or the nature of consciousness. No one has cured Alzheimer’s, cancer, or the common cold. In order to explain these things, scientific explanations must change.

Confusion also arises when considering what the statement “science always changes” actually means. Yes, the methods and techniques of science are constantly changing. If they were not, then leeches would still be used to treat cardiovascular diseases. What really changes in science is our explanations for the data, not the data itself. The data that falling objects accelerate at nearly 9.81 meters per second squared will never change, as long as the Earth remains the way it is. But the explanation for why objects fall changed from Newton to Einstein. If quantum mechanics and general relativity ought to be reconciled, more will change. Similarly, the fact that evolution occurred will never change. Different explanatory mechanisms for how it happened may improve.

To be considered an improvement, new models must account for the predictions of the previous models while making novel predictions. Therefore, all improved models must account for the previous data, plus some more. This is analogous to the development of cellphones, and all technology. The newest iPhone does everything the previous iPhones do, plus some more. If not, then no improvement would have been made. Just like technology, new theories in science can discard old assumptions if they no longer serve a function.

The process of science is one of continual refinement in order to make better predictions. We will probably never have all of the answers, but the more answers we have, the better models we can build. More answers also provoke completely new and exciting questions. Better models make better predictions, and therefore paint more descriptive pictures of reality.

We are all aware of the consequences of the scientific method. But how does it work?

It all starts with a prediction, causal inference, connection, explanation, or any claim you might have about reality. Your claim must be concise enough to make very specific predictions in an experimental test. These precise claims are often called scientific hypotheses. If some hypothesis is supported, then its predictions must be accurate. If the predictions fail, then either the hypothesis is false, or the experiment was poorly conducted or designed. It does not matter how smart you are, how influential your family is, or how much money you have. If your claim does not meet the standards of rigorous criticism and meticulous experiment, then it is false.

Some tests are too weak to validate certain claims, and some claims are too vague to be validated by certain tests. Not all science is good science. But the solution to bad science is not no science; its better science. In this view, every claim is testable by the scientific method, in theory. What science offers is not absolute certainty, rather, it offers better and better explanations as more data become known.

If your experiment makes accurate predictions, then it needs to be repeated many times. Reproducibility is an essential property of good science. The more an experiment is repeated with the same results, the more confident we can be with it. A network of confirmed hypothesis begin to form the basis for a scientific theory. Here the word “theory” has a specific meaning different from its common use. A scientific theory is a network of confirmed hypotheses that point toward the same general conclusion. Some theories are nested or intertwined within others. For instance, nested within the theory of evolution is cell theory. Cell theory predicts that all cells come from pre-existing cells. The theory of evolution takes this one step further (combined with a multitude of evidence) to conclude that all species come from pre-existing species. Just as any two cells in some organism come from an ancestral cell, so too any two populations of species on planet earth come from an ancestral population of species.

It is far from trivial to construct a theory, no matter how simple or elegant they may sound. The construction of scientific theories takes time, effort, debate, criticism, and patience. One could say that the goal of science in general is to create an overarching “theory of everything” that intertwines theories from all domains of discourse. Such a theory would explain everything in the universe, from tiny to massive.

The term “reality” is difficult to define, despite its frequent use. One might say that reality is what exists whether you believe it or not. Gravity is real. Evolution happened. Germs cause disease. The Earth is unfathomably old, and so is the universe. If good science did not work then it would not be good science. If we care at all for truth, facts, reason, logic, evidence, and reality then we must care for science. Only then can we cure the pandemic of misinformation.  

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