The marvelous thing about Science is that it never ends --- there are no "That's the way it is" carved-in-stone conclusions. It's a glorious and terrifying enterprise to take part in, kind of like high-wire walking with no safety net.

In contrast, successful founders of religions often declare the opposite: they announce "I'm the last; accept no further revelations!" That claim goes along with its corollaries "I'm infallible!" and "Everybody else is wrong!" Prophets who want to win tend to draw a line and cut off discussion.

Science takes the opposite tack. As philosopher Sir Karl Popper noted, for any statement to be "scientific", it must be falsifiable --- subject to refutation by some conceivable experiment or observation. (see VulnerableTheories, 17 May 1999)

The infinite malleability of Science can be excruciatingly painful. It's especially rough on the human psyche when change collides with cherished belief --- as witness, for example, the general reaction to recent medical news about optimal diagnosis and treatment of breast and prostate cancers. Even the most thoughtful among the mass media have wrung hands and editorialized about mammography recommendations, and have trotted out anecdotal "evidence" in support of what they already wanted to believe.

It's funny how Aunt Mildred's idiosyncratic experiences are never used to argue for logic and against a commonsense prejudice. With few exceptions, the op-ed gang ignores the fact that (based on the best current analysis) simple inexpensive measures (e.g., losing a few ounces of excess weight, eating a more balanced mix of foods, exercising a few minutes more) could save far more lives than aggressive cancer screening programs. The same holds true in other areas, such as the case for air bags in cars. Some statistics ain't pretty.

But that's the social job of Science: to cut through mazes of preconception and intuition, and to find, measure, explain, and report on what's really going on, regardless of how much an answer may hurt in the short run. The long-term result is a better and happier life for everyone. Knowledge is good --- and that's not a scientific statement!

(see also ScienceAndPseudoscience, 6 Oct 2001)

TopicScience - TopicPhilosophy - 2002-03-11

Religon and dogma. Sometimes I think there was a misunderstanding. "I am the way (not the goal)" morphing into the claim of TRUTH. Bad copyediting, no doubt.

While Sir Karl Popper's falsifiability concept is useful in some areas of science, it fails in others, biology for instance. I don't think it's useful to say that theories in biology are not scientific because they aren't falsifiable. There's a fascinating essay, "Content, Context, Fungibility and Disproof", by Jack Cohen on the Karl Popper website:


(correlates: ThinkingToolsDefined, JanuaryQuips, Comments on Bend Sinister, ...)