Does Science know everything? (Updated)
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, like homeopathy or god. 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:
Make an observation of a particular phenomenon
Form a hypothesis to explain why it happens
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. In other forms of experiments, say for astronomy, it could be observational studies of distant galaxies or mathematical calculations.
Using these findings, there can be certain conclusions drawn, predictions made and more questions can be asked about what’s really going on. This could be fuel for more experiments to be run in the future.
Publish your findings in a reputable journal.
Other scientists to run the same experiments and tests to find flaws in your work.
If they confirm your findings, yay! You’ve discovered something new about reality. If not, you’re back to the drawing board.
Then, after a whole bunch of such studies have been done independently, someone will hopefully do a Meta-analysis that finds trends 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. Why would they do that? Because they’re trying to prove their colleagues wrong. And if they can’t prove their findings wrong, they can work on building on the findings and answering questions that have emerged from the study.
That’s how we try to fight our individual biases - by opening up our findings to be tested to their breaking points. And where they break, we can find our biases weakening the evidence. And learning that could lead to an even better understanding of the topic we are studying.
Each peer-reviewed paper that is published fits one more piece into the jigsaw puzzle that is reality. Each piece challenges us to find the next piece that can fit its predictions. This whole puzzle, missing pieces and all, is called a theory. That’s why we have Gravitational Theory, Germ Theory and the Theory of Evolution. All of these have massive amounts of the puzzle already solved and a clear picture emerges. For instance, we know how evolution has caused the diverse forms of life on our planet, how the tectonic plates move, how round the Earth is, and how our bodies digest food.
But there are still bits missing. Like what’s inside a black hole (unless you’ve watched Interstellar), what happened before the big bang, what are dark matter and dark energy, how our brains can create music and poetry, how crocin works, why dogs always look happy but probably aren’t, why cats are such assholes and so on. For those, science charges on to see how it all fits together.
See, science may never know everything, especially since the universe is so massive and has so many moving parts all the way from galaxy clusters down to subatomic particles. And if someone asks questions about what’s beyond the threshold of our knowledge, it’s okay to say, “I don’t know”. In fact, that may be the only intellectually honest thing to say. In fact, you can take it one step further and say, “I don’t know, but I’m sure someone out there is trying to figure it out.”
And if someone defiantly tells you, “Science doesn’t know everything,” you can confidently respond, “Of course not! But if there’s a question, science is the best method we have to finding the answer”.