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22 December, 2010 / Ash

Science doesn’t know everything!

When a debate turns to evidence and science, I often hear people retorting:

“Science doesn’t know everything!”

It’s interesting that people will resort to anthropomorphising something (treating it as if it’s human) when they run out of logical defences. Science isn’t an organisation or a person. It can’t ‘know’ anything.

To me, such a turn of phrase is an indication that the person may not understand what science is.

Science is a process

Science is in the application of the scientific method. The aim of which is to mitigate our natural human biases – like cognitive dissonance – in pursuit of knowledge. In essence, it boils down to:

  1. Question – Notice something and be curious.
  2. Hypothesis – Predict how it works.
  3. Experiment – Figure out how to test the prediction to prove it wrong – the concept of falsifiability is important to the scientific method.
  4. Observation – Collect data from the tests.
  5. Analysis – Process the data into meaningful results.
  6. Conclusions – Use the evidence to judge whether the prediction still holds. A prediction that is wrong is just as valuable to understanding as a correct one.
  7. Peer Review – Being transparent. Publishing exactly what was done and how, the results, and the reasoning behind the conclusions. Others can then question the reasoning and replicate the experiment themselves.

Science is also a body of knowledge

From the scientific method comes an ever-expanding body of knowledge. The knowledge is constantly being added to, refined and updated as our understanding of the universe grows.

Since science can’t ‘know’ anything, a more appropriate phrase may be:

“Everything hasn’t been explored by science.”

This is true. So much has been explored by science that no person has the cognitive capacity to be across every discipline, but there is still so much more to discover.

However, when someone proclaims that “science doesn’t know everything,” the point that everything hasn’t been explored by science is rarely valid. This cliché is most often heard when someone is intellectually backed into a corner, defending a credulous belief that has been tested using the scientific method and found to be wrong.  Topics ranging from complementary and alternative medicines to superstitions and the paranormal.

If you’re feeling cheeky, the next time you hear someone say “Science doesn’t know everything” ask them who science is.

Further reading

A Beginner’s Guide to Scientific Method –  a good primer for the scientific method and companion for anyone interested in critical thinking.

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