Knowing Nothing 8/23/20

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

Recently my students heard me utter a shocking truth. I told them that in science we know nothing.

I believe I’ve written about this before, but the one thing I’ve learned from my years as a thermodynamacist is that I know nothing from science, save how little we actually know. The reality is that in science, we can prove ideas and concepts wrong (sometimes), but we can never prove that anything is correct or true. The example I gave was of an elephant. We can see its gray color, trunk, size, shape, and say with extreme certainty that it’s an elephant, but, what if we’re wrong? Maybe it’s a field mouse with extreme genetic mutations. The very first person who named the very first elephant knew, with certainty, that that was indeed an elephant. After that, it’s only been assumptions.

There are tests we can do. We can check the DNA, but even at that there might still be circumstances that will fool our results, circumstances for which we are not even aware at this point in time or may never be. If we’re honest about this, the odds that we’re wrong in identifying that elephant is extremely small. Some might say “infinitesimally small”, meaning it’s not quite zero, but zero’s next-door neighbor.

It’s fun to listen to politicians argue about science. They don’t want odds and chances; if they’re going to pass legislation, they want certainty. Scientists, on the other hand, are comfortable with uncertainty. We live it every day. Tomorrow some particularly brilliant young student could prove that atomic theory, and everything that I believe I’ve learned, is completely wrong. Is this bad? Not at all. How cool would it be to be able to start over again? So, to hear scientists speak to the body of evidence pointing to global warming, to speak of the likeliness that global warming is real, and hearing politicians asking if a scientist can speak with absolute certainty is like people arguing in Chinese to those who speak Hindi.

We spoke of hypotheses, informed guesses that scientists make that drive their experiments to test the hypothesis. And we spoke of theories, hypotheses tested by so many groups for so long that it has become generally accepted to be accurate but still with some doubt. And we spoke of laws, “truths” taken to be so absolute that they are expected never to change, but the reality is that even laws can be disproved. For example, in the Renaissance, the law of gravity held that heavier masses would, obviously, fall faster than smaller. A bowling ball will fall faster than a golf ball, until Galileo Galilei asked, “Why does my last name sound so much like my first name?” Then he proved that acceleration due to gravity is independent of the mass of the falling object (ignoring air resistance), and that law disappeared.

So, what am I teaching my students if there is no absolute truth? Science is experience based. It’s based on observations, which may be simple observation or experiment. Through the eons, humans have accumulated immeasurable observations from a plethora of sources starting with our own senses to the most sophisticated pieces of scientific equipment and space probes unimaginable miles away. What we teach in science, the principles, the laws, the theories are nothing more than a collection of models that best fits the observations and data available to us.

I find it kind of humorous when people argue that science isn’t always right. That’s true. We don’t know everything. In fact, all we know are the things we’ve demonstrated to be wrong. So, evolution versus creationism? I’m not going to tell my students what to believe, but creationism does not explain, at least not adequately in my mind, the observations available. So, there is no God? Sorry, but atheism certainly is not consistent with my personal observations either. Science was never meant to replace faith making the argument moot.

As a professor, I love challenging my students to think for themselves. Throwing out the concept that I might not be teaching accurate information, hopefully, will inspire them to think about what they know and what they don’t. It’s nothing but arrogant folly to assume we know, well, anything at all. In another class of mine, Physical Chemistry, a huge part of what we’ll be covering are all of those little cracks and weaknesses that we gloss over in lower level science classes. It’s enormously fun to do so, to challenge what students have believed for the last two or three years and modify their thinking for many years to come. After all, isn’t that really the goal of education, critical and independent thinking?

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