Subtracting Darkness: The Science Illusion

The popular metaphor for the scientific process is that of a torch, shining light into darkness and highlighting the truth. Indeed, the word elucidate, which is often used to indicate discovery, literally means ‘to shed light on’ something.

But science doesn’t work like that.

The Scientific Method, as noted by eminent scientists like Richard Feynman and John Dewey, is built only to disprove, not to prove. When writing experiments, any good scientist doesn’t set out to prove their hypothesis, but to disprove the null hypothesis. By this, I mean that, say, if you were attempting to prove that a trend existed between, say, gender and test scores, you would instead set out an experiment to disprove the idea that there isn’t a correlation between them. Confusing, yes, but it’s also logically rigorous, and means that it’s a lot harder to make errors in the long run.

From a purely philosophical view, the scientific method, or the pragmatic definition of truth as it is sometimes known (that the truth of a statement can only be interrogated by testing the statement) can never truly prove something unless it is tested in every possible scenario and with every possible variable. So, simply put, nothing can ever truly be proven to be absolute truth. Ever.

It’s why, for instance, the Pythagorean Theorem (A^2+B^2=C^2) is still a theorem, despite working correctly for thousands of years, or that, despite the mountain of scientific evidence for evolution, we still call it a theory (we cannot disprove creationism, so we cannot say evolution is indisputably correct, even though we’re pretty sure). 

Most scientific principles (gravity, evolution, the big bang etc) are theories because, while they work as models for explaining the universe, we can’t be sure they’re the right explanations.

Science is founded on uncertainty. Its fundamental principle is that, while we can seek after truth, we may never actually find it. But also, science considers that the journey to discovery is far more important than the destination. Much like artistic perfection or true meaningful contentment, it is a goal that can never be realised – but that’s okay, because there’s huge educational and critical value in simply trying.

Rather than shedding a light on the situation, it would be more apt to consider scientists as gradually removing the darkness, bit by bit, until all that remains is Truth.

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