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The Uncertainty of Science


For centuries, physicists and engineers alike relied on Newton’s foundational laws of physics. They were infallible and unbreakable – we knew this because no matter what circumstances we observed it in, matter always seemed to obey the natural laws. But in the 20th century, the very foundations of physics were upheaved with Einstein’s theories. For instance, take Newton’s theories of gravity. Every object in the universe, he thought, provided they have mass, exerts a force on each other. But it did not explain many phenomena, such as why light bends around planets despite having no mass. Regardless, his mathematical formulas worked very well, still good enough for high school textbooks, and they saw the invention of many innovations such as the steam engine and guns. But Newton was still wrong. His theories were falsified, and a better one came along. The Einsteinian revolution, as it has come to be called, was riveting for the very foundations of science. Karl Popper, the Austrian philosopher, developed many keen insights about the nature of science stemming from this cataclysmic shift in physical knowledge. Newton’s theories were impossible to be verified. In fact, any theory at all can never be verified. Take the statement “all swans are white.” No matter how many white swans you see, you can never say with certainty that all swans are white, because you don’t know if you’re missing a swan which is hiding, or any other multitude of reasons. But, Popper, realized, a single instance of a black swan can falsify the theory. And this is exactly what Einstein did to Newton’s theories.

Far from proving it, an exception to a rule falsifies it completely. If a single particle acts in a manner anomalous to Einstein or Newton’s theory, then it cannot be an accurate law. Notice how this contradicts many perceptions of science, which might typically be thought of as the only certain, concrete knowledge available. But, as Popper showed, science is far from approaching this epistemological infallibility. Theories cannot be proven, but only falsified. It follows from this a distinction between science and what masquerades as it. In order for a claim to be scientific, it has to be risky to the point of being subject to falsification. Take Bertrand Russell’s teapot: suppose there is a teapot in orbit around Mars, but we cannot see it because our telescopes are not powerful enough. This claim, even in principle, cannot be falsified and is therefore pseudoscientific. Freud’s will to pleasure, Adler’s and Nietzsche’s will to power, and Frankl’s will to meaning all also fall under the classification of pseudoscience because of their incapability of being falsified. But, what is unfalsifiable today may not be so tomorrow. For instance, in ten years we might have telescopes which could see such an oddly placed teapot. Or in twenty years we will have the means to directly interrogate the theories of Vienna’s psychoanalysts. This is not to say that unfalsifiable theories are useless – even Popper admitted the value and insight of Freud and his contemporaries’ observations.

Science, then, is a continuous dialectic, always scrapping the old and introducing the new, better, and more accurate. It is quite possible, then, that we will never be able to actually understand and apprehend the scientific or what’s around us, but only know enough about it to make use of it – just like all the innovators relying on Newton’s laws.

One Response to “The Uncertainty of Science”

  1. Mr. Crossman says:

    Matt – I’d cautiously suggest unfalsifiable theories may have some value for the artist or philosopher, but it is a loaded weapon in the hands of the general populace. Most non-scientists are willfully ignorant to the Burden of Proof fallacy – enough to derail most productive social discourse.

    Consequently, our democratic institution is slowly being unraveled by those who wield such theories irresponsibly: confirmation bias and a fundamental misunderstanding of logic has served to promote “fake news” claims without an iota of evidence. I vote to relegate such non-science to the “dust-bin of history”, where it belongs.

    And I vote for tacos. Because Tuesday.
    Nice piece, Matthew.

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