Does Science know everything? (Hint: No.)

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I’m sure you’ve heard or said that “Science doesn’t know everything”. This is usually in defence of an idea that probably isn’t scientific. And that’s okay. Because I agree with you. Science doesn’t know everything, and probably never will. And here’s why.

What is science after all?

Since the first homo sapiens wandered the African plains, we have wondered about this world we live in and how things happen - like rain, storms, babies, birds, bees, tigers, tornadoes, earthquakes, volcanoes and so on. And we’ve stumbled along the way, using our intuition and imagination to find answers.

Initially, we thought elemental gods were pushing all the buttons, like Thor (yup, and his hammer) the Norse god of thunder; Uranus (still trying to figure out how to pronounce that), the Greek god of the sky; or the Hindu Goddess of love, fertility and divine strength, Parvati. But as time went on, we started discovering the natural mechanisms behind the seas, skies and life in general. We figured out that germs made us sick instead of demons or bad spirits or even the four “humours” as described by Hippocrates. Fast forward a few thousand years and we had gone to the moon, built MRI machines and use smartphones!

At every step along the way, we humans shifted gradually from intuition and superstition to evidence and reason. That process, that way of thinking, is called science. (ta-daaa)

Science is a way of thinking about our world and the universe that minimizes the chances of fooling ourselves, which we can do very easily. Look at magicians, optical illusions, so-called mind-readers and so on. They all use the limitations of our senses to fool us.

Even without their help, we have a tendency to fool ourselves every single day.

How we fool ourselves

Food seems tastier if we are very hungry. If someone we care for does something bad, we refuse to believe the accusations. We hear things, see things and think things about the world around us that are warped by our biases, preferences and perspectives. Our senses can be easily fooled by audible and visible illusions, not to mention magicians, mind-readers and illusionists. Even eye-witness testimonies in court are now being questioned because of how our memories change without us even knowing it. We have to face it. Our brains are not as reliable as we think.

But there are ways to work around these limitations.

The Scientific Method

The scientific method tries to be as objective as possible. The process goes something like this:

  1. Make an observation of a particular phenomenon

  2. Form a hypothesis to explain why it happens

  3. Run experiments or find evidence to support or refute the hypothesis. If it’s for nutrition or medicine, the gold standard is the large Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT). That means you need to gather a large number of people from diverse backgrounds, ages and genders (that can change depending on what you want to study) and divide them into at least two groups: one that will receive the hypothesized treatment, and the other that will get nothing or a placebo.

  4. Publish your findings in a reputable journal.

  5. Other scientists to run the same experiments and tests to find flaws in your work.

  6. If they confirm your findings, yay! You’ve discovered something new about reality. If not, you’re back to the drawing board.

  7. Then, after a whole bunch of such studies have been done independently, someone will hopefully do a Meta-analysis that looks or trends and discoveries across all the studies to come up with highly objective results.

Simply, we try at each step see things as they actually are, and then all our colleagues and similar scientists across the world do their own tests to see if they come to the same results.

That’s how we try to fight our individual biases.

I can do 2000 push-ups

For example, if I say I can do 2000 push-ups, you’ll probably think I’m full of shit. Of course, I’ll not do them in front of you because that’s just lame and desperate. But what you can do is ask my friends and a few of my enemies who may have seen me do it. If they all confirm that I can do them, there is a pretty good chance I’m telling the truth. But see, there’s always a teensy bit of doubt. And a limit to how I can justify being able to do all those push-ups with a fat ass like mine.

For example, Isaac Newton who, from the falling of an apple, figured out how gravity works on the orbits of the planets. But when it came to calculating multiple orbits, he couldn’t figure it out.

When Einstein came along, he used Newton’s discoveries and built his own upon them to put together what came to be known as his theories of Special and General Relativity. With this new understanding of gravity, he found an accurate way to understand not only the orbits of the planets, stars and galaxies but also the properties of light and time. But this brought up even more questions he couldn’t answer – what is dark energy and black holes and what triggered the Big Bang? It’s like Einstein figured out that I could not only do 200 push-ups but I also had strings tied to me that an accomplice would pull to lift me up. But there’s still a mystery of how damn strong my accomplice is, and why would he do that for me in the first place.

Now we are waiting for someone else to come along and build on Einstein’s theories to discover the next big thing in astronomy and physics. That will definitely blow all our minds.

Conclusion

And so it goes on. There is always the next big question. As far as we can see, it’s the endless peeling of an onion to figure out how everything works. And there will always be questions to be answered.

Like science doesn’t yet know the answers to what’s inside a black hole (unless you’ve watched Interstellar), what happened before the big bang, how our brains can create music and poetry, why dogs always look happy but probably aren’t, why cats are such assholes and so on.

But there is a lot that science does know with great certainty (with always a little room for better understanding) like how evolution has formed all life on our planet, how the tectonic plates move, how round the Earth is, what crocin does, and how our bodies digest food.

So if you are to believe something you saw on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, or something your mom or best friend told you, try and look up what science has to say about it. After all the effort that goes into it, it will be a more reliable source of information.

What do you think you’ll find? And which would you trust?

Let me know in the comments.