One of the most dangerous things I was taught in school about Science was that the roots of the word ‘Science’ are the Latin word ‘scio’ meaning ‘I know’ and the noun ‘scientia’ meaning ‘knowledge’. It took many years for me to understand that this, though factually accurate, is not what most Science is actually about. And that this assertion leads many of us to expect things of Science which, by and large, it is not equipped to provide. Foremost amongst these is Certainty.
In recent months, we have all become accustomed to the mantra of choice used by politicians, especially in Western Democracies, ‘We are being guided by the science’, even when in many cases, they so demonstrably are not. This, deliberately or not, is rooted in the same misconception of Science. Even the grammar, with the use of the definite article, ‘the’ Science, implies that something is definite, that Science offers certainty.
This misconception is so pervasive that I was actually in my third year studying for a science degree before I stumbled on a truer interpretation of what science actually is and what it can do. Science is a method, a way of looking at our external universe. It may be the best method that humankind has yet devised for that study, but it is absolutely not the body of knowledge that humans believe they have thus accumulated. In fact, almost the opposite is true. Science progresses through an admission that scientists do not know, that a scientific assertion must be, and has to be, challenged time and time again. Science thrives on doubt.
This understanding came to me when I came across the work of Karl Popper. After obtaining a doctorate in psychology, Karl Popper went on to revolutionise the philosophy of science proposing a theory of potential falsifiability as the criterion demarcating science from non-science. In other words, to be scientific, a proposition must have the potential to be proved wrong, to be falsifiable. Which is almost the absolute opposite of certainty. In this world view, Thomas would be the patron saint of science (apologies to St Albert the Great!).
This then is the basis of the scientific method. Typically, a scientist develops a theory or hypothesis based on observations, tests it through experiments and other means, and then modifies the hypothesis on the basis of the outcome of the tests and experiments. The modified hypothesis is then subjected to a cycle (sometimes over centuries) of retesting and modification as it becomes closer to the observed phenomena it seeks to explain. The key part of this process is that it depends on falsification, not verification. The scientific method does not lead to scientific facts – it simply leads to increasingly robust explanations that fit what we observe around us. As Popper says, ‘the only way to test a hypothesis is to look for all the information that disagrees with it.’ So beware of anyone starting a sentence with, ‘It’s a well known scientific fact’!
This leads politicians to a conundrum. In the face of a life which is, by its very nature, finite, insecure and uncertain, their political survival and power over populations depend on persuading us to feel secure, that they have everything under control, and to do that they need to exude Certainty. To assuage the human fear of impermanence, they project a mirage of certainty by selling the illusion of ‘trust in the science’, in the same way as a bishop in mid fourteenth century Europe might exalt his flock to ‘trust in God’.
Their pandemic, known as the ‘Black Death’ led to the deaths of as many as 60% of the population from a plague with an 80% mortality rate. Many in Medieval Europe were understandably unimpressed by the ‘trust in God’ message of the day and turned instead to mysticism on the one hand and hedonism on the other in response.
If fourteenth century Europeans were sceptical about a god that permitted a disease to kill an estimated 25 million of them, is it reasonable to apply the same scepticism to 21st century politicians whose ‘leadership’ has to date allowed nearly half a million deaths worldwide (at a conservative estimate)?
In the face of humanity’s immense, often self-imposed, survival challenges, now is not the time for people to lose faith in the process of science because politicians hijack its potential for progress to peddle false expectations about what it can and cannot do simply to justify their own political power. ‘The question is not how to get good people to rule; the question is: how to stop the powerful from doing as much damage as they can to us.’ – Karl Popper