What do scientists really know?


Varun Srivastava

  Do the concept of science, and the perception of science disagree? Is science a field that deals with the complete and absolute knowledge of Nature, or should we take scientific ‘breakthroughs’ with a pinch of salt, knowing that it is only valid till it's not? This opinion piece looks at how science in popular culture is at odds with science in reality.

“Science is not a perfect tool, but it's the best that we have” — Carl Sagan

  As a child interested in science, I used to love reading different books that seemed to explain many remarkable (and complicated) ideas in a way that the general public could understand. After reading them, I used to feel a sense of superiority over others. I could go about telling random “facts” to people – “You know time slows down for things that move fast”; “The world at small scales is a world of probabilities”; “We live in an 11-dimensional world!”. All this sounds very interesting and “sciencey”, and I used to think that I know so much, just because I could recite facts from a science book.

  My perception was not a unique case. In fact, the education system, especially at the elementary level, has conditioned us into thinking that if we know facts we are knowledgeable, because mugging up facts earns us rewards in the form of good marks. Being right is more important than understanding. So we have learned to value this kind of learning.

  Ironically, this is how myths start. Myths and unfounded beliefs propagate through the society because we have been trained not to question. That is perhaps why inherently curious children stop questioning and start accepting facts. That is also perhaps why learning science becomes a burden for most, rather than an enjoyable experience.

  Later in my life, I gradually realized the importance of being comfortable with the fact that most of the things I believe to be true may not be so and it is okay to not know. This is a crucial skill that every scientist learns at some point in his or her training. This idea was captured beautifully by Richard Feynman when he said, “I don't mind not knowing. It doesn't scare me.”

  Scientists are perceived in society as people who know a lot of stuff. It's true; you have to know a lot of stuff to be a scientist. But what most people fail to recognize is that a scientist's job starts here. It is not enough to know a lot of things. It is much more important to recognize areas that you don't know, the gaps in your knowledge, and the ability to ask the right questions to fill these gaps and discover something new. The remarkable thing is, every discovery in science has led to even more difficult questions. It's like finding a key to a closed–door, opening it, and entering a room only to realize that there are ten more doors to open, and each one leads to ten more.

  In a way, scientists are doomed to an eternity of exponential uncertainty. However, is being uncertain really that bad? Should we abandon all hope and stop doing science altogether? The answer is, of course, not! Science, through its methods of inquiry, has provided us with a view of the universe so remarkably beautiful and wonderfully bizarre that none of the other human-made stories about gods and miracles come close.

  Most people, even researchers and scientists, find the fact that we may never reach a final answer, scary. Looking at the history of science, we can say that this might be true, and if we think carefully, it is not that surprising.

  According to our current understanding the Universe started about 14 billion years ago and has been “human-free” for almost the entirety of its existence. Furthermore, the period we have been doing science is miniscule compared to the period our species has been present on the planet. Our brains primarily evolved to find food, hunt animals and make social bonds as opposed to visualizing abstract mathematical concepts. So, it is reasonable to think that Nature may never reveal all her secrets to us, or that our brains might not even be capable of comprehending nature in her full glory. Despite our obvious biological disadvantages, our intellectual curiosity still drives us forward to look up at the night sky and try to ponder our place in a vast universe filled with billions of galaxies, just like our own.

  Think of a ripple in a pond. Each discovery of ours causes a ripple of unanswered questions to propagate, and we are left with ever more uncertainties than before. Scientists are always on an active lookout for evidence that may say that their theory isn't quite right. They are always looking to fill the gaps in their knowledge. Thus we need to redefine the way scientists and science are perceived in society. Science, currently, isn’t an ‘all– knowing body of knowledge’, and in fact, may never be. It is a body of ideas and methodologies that have always evolved to make sure that what we claim to know about nature is as close to the truth as possible.

  I would like to end with another one of Feynman's stories, about the time he came across Descartes' argument. Descartes philosophized that because he could conceive of a god which was perfect, therefore a perfect god must exist in reality. Feynman argued that in science, everything is imperfect and known only to a certain degree of approximation. What Descartes failed to understand is that his idea of perfection was probably based on the belief that something perfect should exist.

  Science doesn't guarantee perfection. Science is, in fact, the most perfectly imperfect tool developed by us to view nature as she is.

Varun Srivastava is a final year BS-MS student majoring in Physics at IISER Kolkata. He has always found science communication to be a fascinating field and is hence trying it out through this platform. Apart from science he enjoys reading history and philosophy, and is also into sports, especially playing and following football.

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