The limits of Science


Thanks to “bls” at the TopMost Apple for digging out this response to the question “What have you changed your mind about?” (It was a New Year’s “carnival” over on the site The Edge.)

In this particular response, Colin Tudge, a British scientist and science writer, talks about his realization of the limits of scientific inquiry.

It’s a theme that I point out in most any physics or astronomy class that I teach. Sadly, because of the way that most Americans are exposed to the rudiments of science, there has developed a belief in the omnicompetence of scientists and scientific inquiry to eventually answer any question in a way that is absolutely true.

From Tudge’s response:

“I have changed my mind about the omniscience and omnipotence of science. I now realize that science is strictly limited, and that it is extremely dangerous not to appreciate this.

Science proceeds in general by being reductionist. This term is used in different ways in different contexts but here I take it to mean that scientists begin by observing a world that seems infinitely complex and inchoate, and in order to make sense of it they first ‘reduce’ it to a series of bite-sized problems, each of which can then be made the subject of testable hypotheses which, as far as possible, take mathematical form.

Fair enough. The approach is obviously powerful, and it is hard to see how solid progress of a factual kind could be made in any other way. It produces answers of the kind known as ‘robust’. ‘Robust’ does not of course mean ‘unequivocally true’ and still less does it meet the lawyers’ criteria — ‘the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’. But robustness is pretty good; certainly good enough to be going on with.

The limitation is obvious, however. Scientists produce robust answers only because they take great care to tailor the questions. As Sir Peter Medawar said, ‘Science is the art of the soluble’ (within the time and with the tools available).

Clearly it is a huge mistake to assume that what is soluble is all there is — but some scientists make this mistake routinely.”

I would add that not only do many scientists make this mistake, but so do many public policy experts and of more concern to me, so do many modern theologians…

Read the rest here.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...