As Richard Dawkins once remarked, “…science works, bitches.” The whole reason why we engage our world using the scientific method is indeed because we can demonstrate that reality follows a set of rational laws. Scientists endeavor to learn more about reality because it is useful to do so; our current abstract theories can become the basis for future concrete technologies.
For instance, Albert Einstein’s theory of the photoelectric effect as entirely theoretical in 1905; he postulated that light radiates through space in discrete packets of energy called photons. His theory was vindicated in 1914 when Robert Millikan experimentally confirmed Einstein’s theory that the maximum kinetic energy of an electron escaping the surface of a metal is equal to the Planck constant times the the frequency of the incident photon minus the minimum energy required to remove an electron from the surface of a given metal. Albert Einstein’s theory has been confirmed experimentally several times since then and has stood up to major scrutiny within the scientific community; Millikan himself was not convinced of it until several years later when further researched lined up with his results. Since scientists can reliably replicate the results of Millikan’s experiment, it is widely accepted to be true. Einstein’s theory of the photoelectric effect is no longer relegated to the realm of research physicists; laypeople can verify the photoelectric effect based on observations in the real world. For instance, it utilized in many different technologies. Automatic doors rely on the photoelectric effect; a constant beam of light is aimed a photo-detector at the top of the door and when the receptor no longer senses photons striking it (this happens when someone steps in front of the door), this signals the door to open.
Science has limitations, though. These were discussed in Francis Bacon’s 1620 treatise Novum Organum, outlining the scientific method. Bacon is considered the father of science, and his magnum opus led to the prominence of the scientific method in Europe and the rest of the Western world. Bacon argued that that natural world could be reduced to smaller parts and that these parts could be removed, studied separately and understood in their simplest forms before being reassembled. In fact, Bacon was convinced that the whole scientific enterprise should be set up around understanding the natural world so that we could manipulate it and ultimately control it. But Bacon also realized that science has limitations; scientists would need to be wary about inadvertently falling into what Bacon referred to as the Four Idols. Idols are limitations of the way that we humans tend to think which mislead the mind’s otherwise objective reasoning.
Bacon believed that human nature, while making us inquisitive, can also be a hindrance to the scientific method. Bacon called this the idols of the tribe, and he is referring to the general predisposition that all people tend to have. People are prone to confirmation bias; they tend to focus their attention only on information that already confirms their preconceived notions. Also, our senses tend to fool us, too. As I have pointed out in a previous post, optical illusions tend to fool our senses. Our senses evolved to observe phenomena as efficiently as possible are prone to mistake. If we can’t rely on our senses, we need to come up with more ingenious ways to make observations. That is where science comes in to grant us a more reliable way of learning about our surroundings.
While human beings in general have shortcomings, each individual human being has shortcomings, too. Some people, for instance, tend to be more conservative and are slower to adopt new ways of thinking when the old ways of thinking may have served them well, even when evidence comes out to refute their old ways of thinking. Others, might be too quick to jump onto a bandwagon, holding favor with a position that might not have enough evidence to warrant belief. Overall, scientists tend to be a skeptical bunch, but anyone with an open mind willing to consider new evidence has a point where the evidence in favor of a new way of thinking is simply too much to ignore. The amount of evidence needed to persuade any one person will differ and so more gullible individuals will accept premises with little criticism where skeptics tend to reserve judgment until enough evidence is presented.
Our culture plays a role, too. Bacon called this the Idol of the theater. The way that we were socialized growing up or the way that we were taught is subject to cultural biases that people might not recognize. One clear example of this would be the study of the female orgasm. In the nineteenth century there was little desire among scientists (mostly made up of older, white men) to study whether or not the female orgasm existed. This was a cultural bias that arose from the Victorian era and in the sexism that was pervasive in Western society at the time. Even today, there are cultural biases against supporting lung cancer research. The cultural bias would have us believe that only smokers get lung cancer and that researching a cure for lung cancer would not be as worthwhile to our society as finding a cure to breast cancer or lymphoma.
And finally, scientists are limited by language itself; this was called the Idols of the Marketplace. The words that we use might have more than one meaning and this ambiguity can lead to trouble if two people who are communicating with each other are using the same words, but give those words different meanings. People might also create new definitions for words that already exist and if others do not share that idiosyncratic definition there can be confusion as well. This is why scientists strive to use use technical language when they present their findings; they try to minimize the amount of confusion. However, this tends to have the opposite effect when a scientist is speaking with the average layperson. Perhaps no more obvious is this than when scientists discus climate change. Terms like theory or variable only have one meaning with the scientific field, but they can have different meanings outside of the scientific field. Theory to a layperson tends to hold the same meaning that a hypothesis would to a scientist.
These idols that Bacon pointed out in Novum Organum were already well-understand and accepted by philosophers centuries before Bacon published his treatise. These natural shortcomings will likely persist indefinitely into the future. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot fight natural predispositions. There are ways to combat these idols. The greatest contribution to science of the twentieth century is perhaps the adoption of double blind research methodology and other tools that limit human bias from spoiling the results of research. Making science more inclusive could also limit the potential for groupthink in research, although the real benefit of making science more inclusive would come from expanding the opportunities that women and minorities have making discoveries in the scientific endeavor. Learning science is an empowering act in and of itself and raising a generation of students to think rationally and argue critically would be its own reward.