Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fallibilism in Science

Science professionals working in natural science most often seem confident their interpretations are certain. The field of science has acquired the cachet of certainty. Science professionals promote this vision. As a science educator the appeal of science for my students consisted of confident discoveries about what the world was like and how things in the world worked. Along the highway of their science studies, we assumed most of our students judged the world was an interesting and fascinating place worth discovering.

Most discoveries of the “hard sciences” appear fairly certain as methods of their discovery become known. Physics, chemistry, earth sciences, and biology are considered hard sciences. Systematic observation and rigorous mathematically quantified experimental methods help us achieve the comfort of certainty. Apart from the intrinsic fascination for results at this level of discovery, even more satisfaction results from knowledge that the application of our science improves our everyday lives. How could our lives become more enjoyable? The progression to applied science is a natural transition making our science even more appealing.

Some hard sciences, especially earth sciences and biology, permit a somewhat more diverse range of interpretation, particularly when considering cause and effect within historical aspects of their study. For instance, climate scientists may interpret cause and effect of past climate changes differently, even as today’s climate scientists have widely different interpretations of today’s cause and effect. Biologists view the history of earth’s life forms according to an evolutionary or naturalistic mindset, or a creationist mindset, or perhaps some combination of both.

Perhaps trouble lurks underneath our optimistic idealism. One cannot read broadly about the history of science or the current state of affairs in the world of science and fail to become aware of a term popularized by an American scientist and philosopher of science who lived and wrote a century ago. Charles Peirce (1839-1914) coined the term fallibilism to describe the reality that man can be wrong about his understanding of the world and the beliefs he embraces. Peirce wrote “Any claim justified today may need to be revised or withdrawn in light of new evidence, new arguments, and new experiences.”

Many modern observers have not encountered the term fallibilist with respect to science. I have seldom encountered the term in my discussions with friends concerning science topics. The concept applies across all human experience in any field of knowledge, but the term is clearly not overworked. Proponents of personal views, rather, devote much of their energies toward defending conclusions based on their own research. Honest, careful science professionals are justified in presenting their research findings with confidence. Notable exceptions are fields where the scientists are clearly driven by heavy philosophical considerations. For example, many secular scientists freely acknowledge that science is a philosophy-driven enterprise. Daniel Dennett, one of the champions of the New Atheist movement and an evolutionary biologist, says “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination.”

Scientists and professional researchers in every field of knowledge are not fond of characterizing their work as controversial or subject to potential error. Personal pride sometimes prevents researchers from acknowledging errors or potential errors in their body of work, much less errors in their conclusions. The most honest researchers would acknowledge their work and beliefs are subject to error and revision. They would be considered fallibilists. When arguments are presented to support their beliefs, many researchers suppress evidence which could weaken their proposals. Were they to deal transparently with countervailing evidence, their tentativeness may signal a refreshing willingness to search for truth rather than to labor for a purely personal agenda.

Our human journey through life is filled with learning, unlearning, and relearning. The scope of knowledge is exceedingly broad. Our blog deals with two important spheres of knowledge and their interconnectedness. Knowledge of science connects with theology--God is the author of truth in both spheres. God has gifted us with tools of discovery to help us access truth in science and theology. Discoveries in science point toward God as the Creator of all things and reveal much about his nature. At the same time, our grasp of theological truth helps inform us about the workings of our physical world. It is important to willingly acknowledge interpretational errors in either science or theology as we discover them.