The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

The Self-Correcting Nature of Science

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 29, 2013

Often I get asked what I think is so special about science. Many times people criticize my science-oriented worldview by saying that “science is just one view” or that “science is only ‘one way’ of knowing” and so on; it goes without saying that most often I hear this criticism of science and its methodology from those who are running counter to that methodology, usually in an effort to promote some brand of pseudoscience or similar nonsense.

Well, the purpose of this post is to point out one of the most valuable aspects of science: that particular aspect of its methodology which displays the self-correcting nature of science.

First, allow me to admit, right up front, that science isn’t necessarily about finding “Truth” with a capital “T”; as much as I and my fellow scientists support science, we must acknowledge that it, at best, offers us a kind of provisional truth. That is, the “truth” (note the lower-case “t”) that science offers us is always open to revision based upon new information, and this is – contrary to what some might think – one of its greatest strengths. And, as such, what science can do is approach, however slowly and asymptotically, a more and more accurate view of the world around us as a result.

This ability of science to be open to new information, to be capable of being revised, to be self-correcting, is precisely in opposition to the kind of dogmatism which is offered by so many other modes of thought. Too often, other modes of thought, whether they be grounded in religion or some kind of rigid ideology, start with the “Truth” (capital “T”) and work from there; I like to reference the following cartoon in order to illustrate the difference…

creationism vs science

Of course, the example of creationist pseudoscience is but one example, but I think my point is made.

Something which should be added to this discussion is the fact that, just as in any human endeavor, science is prone to making mistakes. In fact, the history of science is full of errors, failed experiments, and even outright fraud; but the self-correcting nature of modern science once again comes to bear as a great strength in these cases.

For example, it was scientists who discovered the fraud behind the cold fusion fiasco in the late 1980s, wherein a pair of researchers publicly claimed (fraudulently) that they had produced fusion in a chemical reaction on a lab bench; it was careful and persistent application of scientific methodology which pointed out the errors in the claims that “faster-than-light” neutrinos had indeed gone superluminal (it ended up, at least in part, being a mistake in the experimental design); and this process continues to this day with doubts raised (yes, by scientists) about recent claims of stem-cell cloning.

This self-correcting, self-policing nature of science to peer into its own processes, methodology, and motivation is more than admirable, in my opinion; it is vitally necessary to have a mode of thought that incorporates this kind of inquiry in our world. That is because all too often when we convince ourselves of some kind of “Truth” (note that capital “T” again), it leads to the shutting down of inquiry, doubt, and analysis so necessary to see whether or not the “Truth” is just a lie.

Give me that kind of humility over the smug, self-assuring claim to “Truth” any day.

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One Response to “The Self-Correcting Nature of Science”

  1. Woody said

    What an important facter in the positive methods of science.
    In a way it makes other supposed means of ‘knowing’ seem thin, wispy, ethereal and unreliable (like ghosts on the very edge of one’s field of vision).

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