If Science says so then it must be true. Right?
I used to think that if someone said that something had been "proven in scientific studies," that meant it was a fact to be accepted without question.
I had missed the memo that scientific theories are just that -- theories--and subject to change when new information comes to light.
Maybe more importantly, until relatively recently I wasn't willing to make the effort to search out new information and update my world view accordingly.
I think this is a common mistake, and a dangerous one. It's part of why we humans have a tendency to stick with our familiar, comfortable assumptions about the world, even when they aren't serving us.
Hypothesis, Theory and Fact
Part of my problem was that I was confused about the meaning of a hypothesis, a theory, or a fact, as the terms are used in science. I've done a bit of Ecosia-ing (as opposed to Googling) and here's what I've learned:
A hypothesis is a tentative explanation which makes an educated guess as to how or why something happens.
A theory, as the term is used in science, is a substantiated explanation that relies on tested and verified data.
BUT, a scientific theory is not a fact. Theories (like the theory of gravity) are built from many facts (like, apples fall from trees). But if along comes an observation of something that challenges the theory, the theory might have to be updated.
It's how the theories are compiled that I'm interested in exploring for the rest of this article.
I'm going to share some things pointed out in an article called "The Myth of Modernity," by John Micheal Greer, about the social processes via which scientific theories are formed.
(As I go along I'll also share links to an explanation about misconceptions of science --like the one I had-- and the process by which scientific theories get updated.)
Before we start, I want to make it clear that although in this article I'm seconding Greer's suggestion that we hold scientific theories lightly, I don't think science is "bad." I just don't think that everything it says (or that someone says it says) should be accepted without question.
Approach with caution and an open mind
Herbalist Susun Weed describes science as "the honest testing of ideas and the ability to observe clearly the confusing relationship of cause and effect." I like that definition, as far as it goes.
Botanist and Indigenous Elder Robin Wall Kimmerer brings science and indigenous wisdom together beautifully and movingly in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. Reading it was a comforting reminder to me that many--probably most--scientists are drawn to science out of a love for nature and living things (and also that the generally accepted definition of "living things" could do with a bit of an expansion).
It's the system of science, the surrounding social matrix, that makes statements about scientific theories into something I think are best approached with caution and an open mind.
Jumping through social hoops to get to the science
When a scientist wants to do an experiment to explore an idea and prove or disprove a hypothesis (ie, turn a possible explanation into a "scientific theory"), there are hoops to jump through before they can start. Here are some of them:
- preparing by reading up on the literature that's already been written in their field
- coming up with an idea or hypothesis they want to test
- designing the experiment or study
- considering the equipment that's available to them to use
- finding funding
Turns out, all these hoops are social to a very significant degree. Another way to put it is to say that they're not logical and objective; they're emotional and subjective:
- The existing scientific literature in any given field of study is a product of the social processes of peer review and scientific opinion, which have been shaped by academic politics. 1
- Any hypothesis that a scientist comes up with to test is at least partly a product of their education and social conditioning, and also partly a product of current intellectual trends in their field.
- The equipment available for scientists to use depends on who funded its development, and on what is popular and in demand - and therefore readily available.
- The design of the experiment or study is influenced by current trends in the field, and it also has to appeal to funding sources and to whoever controls access to the necessary equipment and other resources.
- The decision to grant or withhold funding comes down to the behavior of human beings involved in the funding process.
Subject to opinion, bias, and social and political maneuvering
So. What happens after someone gets through all those hoops, runs the experiment, and produces some results? The next steps include:
- interpreting the results of the experiment
- writing a paper on it
- getting a prestigious coauthor or two to sign on
- submitting the paper to a scientific journal and then waiting while it goes through the peer review process
- revising the paper in response to comments by peer reviewers
- waiting to see how other researchers respond to it and adapt their own research projects in the light of this paper
- getting the media to publicize the results and other writers to link to it
All these are social processes. They're all subject to opinion, bias, and social and political maneuvering for status and power.
Now take that and multiply it by four centuries or so of scientific effort, and the result is a vast social process built atop a relatively narrow foundation of [scientific theories about how the world works].
Those [theories] are carefully selected, curated, and assembled by the social process into a model of the world.”
Is the model accurate?
Well, that's a tricky question.
If scientists had asked different questions, used different equipment, given their results a different theoretical spin, and/or combined them in different ways, we could have ended up with a completely different model of the world than the one we're currently operating with.
And this leaves aside any discussion about experimental and statistical fraud or how often the questions being asked are skewed toward supporting existing theory to avoid rocking the proverbial boat.
Science is when...
Science (as it should be) is when all of the following 4 things happen, in roughly this order:
- Someone (the researcher/experimenter) asks nature a specific question and receives a specific answer.
- Secondly, a bunch of fallible human beings all interact with each other in complicated ways to finally agree on what scientific theories they will present to the rest of the world.
- Thirdly, there is how the message is interpreted by the rest of the world. (This page does a great job of correcting common misconceptions about science.)
- And finally, there is whether or not existing scientific theories are being updated as new information comes to light. This doesn't always happen promptly, but it does always seem to happen sooner or later. I guess it's up to us (the public) to choose whether we're going to accept a given theory without question, or make the effort to sniff around for more current information. (This page explains the process of updating scientific theories.)
A mosaic made with bits of data
"The Myth of Modernity" describes scientific worldviews as having been "assembled out of data points drawn from nature in much the same way that a mosaic is assembled from bits of colored stone."
The data points--the specific answers to the questions asked by experimenters--came from nature. But the pattern in which they are arranged to form the mosaic is a human construction.
What does this mean for the rest of us?
While the scientists are asking questions or deliberating on how to arrange the answers in the mosaic, the rest of us are just trying to get along. To navigate our way through Life, ideally without destroying it in the process.
To do that, we need to do a lot of things (like feed ourselves and take care of our health) that we're often told are best done "according to the science."
According to some of the science, feeding ourselves and taking care of our health should be left to the experts in industrial food and pharmaceutical medicine.
But since you're reading here, and since you made it all the way to the bottom of this post, I'm pretty sure you're clear that there are other ways we could be arranging the pattern in the mosaic.
It's okay--it's more than okay, it's beneficial--to ask your own questions, do your own experiments, draw your own conclusions, and live by your own convictions.
What do you think? Please scroll down below the Endnotes to comment.
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- That behind-the-scenes politics have shaped science probably since its very beginning is obvious if you care to take more than a cursory glance. The history of germ theory is one example and the autobiographical books by neuroscientist and pharmacologist Dr Candace Pert give another example. I'm sure there are dozens more.