Even scientists don’t believe that science can provide the answers to all the questions. But for the types of questions for which science is suited–a number bigger than advocates of other pathways to knowledge will admit–science is superior. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.
By Zac Hanley, PhD
Human beings are good at devising many approaches to solving a single problem. Consider a big problem, like how we acquire knowledge. Science is one strategy for gaining knowledge but it isn’t the only one. We can gain knowledge by means such as observation, intuition, introspection (of your mind, or your current knowledge, of your language), by consulting lore or other authorities, through trial and error, by applying logical steps or even through revelation (though I would argue this is either a special case of intuition or is not knowledge acquisition). The scientific method is formed of a selection of the best of all those methods.
Lets say youre trying to figure out why the ocean has regular tides. You can use observation or intuition; you can read the Bible, ask an eye-witness or pray for the answer. You might even get the right answer. But when all of your approximate or imperfect methods of knowledge acquisition fail, or if you aren’t convinced of the answer you get, the scientific method is there, waiting to be used and tested. Admittedly, it might take a disproportionate effort to apply, it might be harder to get the answer than you thought, it might even seem rather boring to do it this way…but when the other methods drop the ball half way along, the scientific method will deliver.
Proponents of science are happy to admit that the method isn’t appropriate to all situations. Take the game of Battleship, for example: the scientific method is no better than trial and error. When making moral assessments, introspection and intuition always come to the fore. If you require irrational or super-rational explanations of the universe in all its glory then introspection and the consulting of lore are most likely to satisfy your doxastic appetite.
Sciences’ fans also happily admit that science isn’t perfect, nor is it always right. This is a crucial difference between science and the other methods and Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and popular science writer, points it out: regardless of the perceived value of other ways of understanding the world, only one method gains converts by repeatedly proving itself superior to the others and that one method is also prepared to admit it is wrong. No other system of knowledge acquisition or even culture admits it can be wrong. For transparency and reliability, look to science.
I believe that science is an enabler in all cultures, societies and brains but I must admit that a particular result of an experiment may not, however, be welcome in a particular culture, given society, or individual brain. When this happens, cultural relativists (and many of those who take a middling position) may then ask, ‘In what way can we indicate the value of traditional or cultural perceptions that are not in agreement with scientific results?’
That is an interesting question but, frankly, it’s a distraction. If your knowledge base tells you that tides are due to the sea responding to turtle nesting, or that the Earth was created 6000 years ago, or that the sprinkling of lights some call the Milky Way is the ejaculate of a paternalistic deity, you are welcome to argue the value of your knowledge and to recruit as many relativists to your cause as you can. But you are delusional if you think that your knowledge has all the characteristics that scientific knowledge has.
This is the crux.
People are free to choose the method by which they interpret the world and are equally free to reject the results of any particular method (how could it be otherwise? how can I force you to forget the turtles and go for the moon?). But, underneath it all, it really is actually true (for all practical values of true) that the moon causes tides, that the Earth is billions of years old, and that the Milky Way is a bogglingly vast collection of unimaginably hot balls of burning gas many trillions of miles away.
Science has no interest in providing you with self-esteem just because you feel you deserve it, or because yours is a tradition rendered two-dimensional by the steamroller of European expansionism, or because when you were small and impressionable, your parents told you about the turtles causing the tides. It isn’t the turtles, dammit! However comforting your knowledge may be, however valuable it is to you, do not bank on it lasting because, I must tell you, if it rubs against the reality that the scientific method discovers, it will eventually abrade away. Science, for these particular journeys, is the better path, the best we have to date. Other journeys might be valid for you, but the risk is always that they take you somewhere else.
Zac Hanley has a BSc in biotechnology and a PhD in plant molecular biology and is a Chief Scientist at ViaLactia Biosciences. This piece comes from a longer discussion that Zac published on http://www.ortholog.com