Science is a funny thing. As in strange. And maybe I think the way science is put on a pedestal is quite funny in the comical sense. In a tragic way. Tragicomedy.
The word science comes from latin scientia and means knowledge. Now already here my quirky mind starts bucking because if we start exploring knowledge from a philosophical angle we run in to all sorts of fascinating theories and understandings of what it may be… There is a whole branch of philosophy which concerns itself with the concept of knowledge and it is called epistemology or the theory of knowledge. Episteme is Greek for knowledge. Anyway epistemology is worth looking into if you like to think you know your stuff…
However let’s move on.
Science is briefly described as the study and organisation of knowledge.
Now if you ask me that is pretty vague for something we throw about in daily life conversations as the go to for answers and defer to when we don’t want to make our own decisions…
What are we really saying when we say that something has been ‘scientifically proven’, that something has ‘an evidence base’, that we are ‘following the science’ or that we put our trust in scientists?
What do we mean when we say something is ‘scientific’?
And what are our biases when we judge something to be scientific or not scientific enough?
Modern science is based on the idea that we can study and organise knowledge according to testable explanations and predictions about nature and the universe.
So someone would observe a process (often in nature), describe it, come up with a theory about it, test the theory and if proven the test would need to be replicated by others and show the same result.
The most used example is probably Newton and the apple and how he discovered gravity. Or was able to describe and test it anyway.
We actually still don’t know what gravity is. There are theories and models to explain it, but no certainty beyond doubt.
Just because we can describe something, prove something exists, label and organise it, it doesn’t mean we have the foggiest clue how it works…
When scientific terms like models, theory, tests, research and evidence are used, I think it is easy to assume that an unquestionable truth is being uncovered. Something we can rely on, something that can lead the way when we feel confused.
Every research project, every study, every academic paper has to state the limitations of the research. In terms of theories, the biases, the devising of tests, the tools for collection of data or similar, the interpretation of data as well as the conflict of interests of the people involved (which I think goes beyond funding and practical things but this is rarely considered).
If we rely on ‘science’ to make decisions without understanding how the scientific community works and without knowing what ‘science’ actually is, how something is ‘scientifically proven’, what an ‘evidence base’ means or what ‘peer review’ means, we are going to get disappointed.
Science is not the holy grail and it does not deserve to be put on a piedestal and deferred to. We do a disservice to ourselves as well as to science.
I think that any good and trustworthy scientist would say the same.
I could be wrong. But in my experience really brilliant scientists are painfully aware of the limitations of science, of scientific procedures and of the implications when science is used as a blanket go-to or justification for important decision making.
Life is complicated. There are no easy answers. There are no simple answers.
As I see it, science itself is not the problem. Our reliance on it and lack of questioning of it, is a problem.
And I wonder if we are turning to science in the absence of another authority?
For thousands if not millions of years we have been used to making collective decisions by deferring to an external, shared authority. Nature, ancestors and deities. Laws handed to us by external forces.
And now in the age of individuality and personal freedom, where believing in a God is considered a choice and not a given, where parents, elders, community leaders or kings no longer dictate what we must do, where can we turn when we face serious moral dilemmas and collective crisis?
When nobody really wants to shoulder the responsibility of impossible decisions and we have not yet developed into a society that accepts shared responsibility but still hunger for authority.
What and who can we believe?
Who will guide us? Who can we follow?
Who will lay down the law?
We look around us and above us – searching, hoping.
Conveniently science hangs there, like a wonderful shining promise of certainty and safety. Slightly above and beyond most of us. Convincing enough to make us trust and obscure enough to make us believe.