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The Limits of Science

September 22, 2010

Anthony Gottlieb in Intelligent Life:

At the end of her book “Science: A Four Thousand Year History” (2009), Patricia Fara of Cambridge University wrote that “there can be no cast-iron guarantee that the cutting-edge science of today will not represent the discredited alchemy of tomorrow”. This is surely an understatement. If the past is any guide—and what else could be?—plenty of today’s science will be discredited in future. There is no reason to think that today’s practitioners are uniquely immune to the misconceptions, hasty generalisations, fads and hubris that marked most of their predecessors. Although the best ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Darwin, Einstein and others have stood the test of time and taken their place in the permanent corpus of knowledge, error remains inherent in the enterprise of science. This is because interesting theories always go beyond the data that they seek to explain, and because science is made by people. Examples from recent decades of scientific consensus that turned out to be wrong range from the local to the largest possible scale: acid rain was not destroying forests in Germany in the 1980s, as it was said to have been, and the expansion of the universe has not been slowing down, as cosmologists used to think it was.

Physicists, in particular, have long believed themselves to be on the verge of explaining almost everything. In 1894 Albert Michelson, the first American to get a Nobel prize in science, said that all the main laws and facts of physics had already been discovered. In 1928 Max Born, another Nobel prize-winner, said that physics would be completed in about six months’ time. In 1988, in his bestselling “A Brief History of Time”, the cosmologist Stephen Hawking wrote that “we may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature.” Now, in the newly published “The Grand Design”, Hawking paints a picture of the universe that is “different…from the picture we might have painted just a decade or two ago”. In the long run, physicists are, no doubt, getting closer and closer to the truth. But you can never be sure when the long run has arrived. And in the short run—to adapt Keynes’s proverb—we are often all wrong. [More]

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