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Victor Dominocielo: Science Makes Mistakes, But It’s Part of the Scientific Process

When I talk about a scientific explanation of events and cause and effect, I am sometimes told that, “Science also makes mistakes.”

True enough: Science makes mistakes. However, it would be more accurate to say that Science makes mistakes and then, as part of the scientific process, vigorously and even viciously purges those mistakes from its system by experimentation, repetition and peer review over time.

This adversarial element of science to its own body of work is exemplified by the “null hypothesis” or, more colloquially, “What you said is wrong.” If your hypothesis can withstand the onslaught of professionals in your field trying to shred your work and prove you wrong, then your idea/hypothesis wins provisional and temporary acceptance. It is a brutal performance standard.

Albert Einstein said, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” This is a very high bar of legitimacy to maintain and it is the reason why Science holds a respected place of authority in our society.

When Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, he was immediately ridiculed. He remained a patent clerk for four more years. Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics, was complete ignored when he presented his work … for 40 years! Charles Darwin was petrified about publishing his work and offending the prevailing religious/professional establishment of his day, so he waited for 23 years after his famous voyage.

Many people who question scientific findings still think their beliefs and ideas have the same weight as scientific theories. This may be a semantic misunderstanding between the use of the term “hypothesis” (a proposed explanation with no evidence at the beginning of the scientific process) and a scientific “theory” that is usually the result of years of research, evidence, experimentation and peer review.

As an example, our personal ideas and beliefs about Evolution are hypotheses. Darwin’s work is a scientific theory that has withstood the test of time: generations of experts trying to prove the “theory” of evolution wrong with no success.

If you Google the 10 worst mistakes of science, you get a very interesting list. From Galen’s faulty idea of the circulatory system and Ptolemy’s Earth-centered solar system in the second century to the theory of the four humors and spontaneous generation and on to alchemy and astrology, it appears that Science has made some incredible mistakes.

Except that when these events took place, there was no Science as we know it today. In the second century, Ptolemy watched a few sunsets and without any theoretical astronomy framework and only rudimentary tools, wrongly concluded that the sun revolved around the Earth. Galen was dealing with the incorrect medical framework of the four humors when he proposed a completely wrong idea for circulation.

To be sure, throughout history there have always been scientific individuals and in our more recent past there were local, coordinated groups of scientists. However, Science as we know it today, as civilization’s organized, worldwide, multicultural network of research-based, experimental explanations of cause and effect, did not exist until the 1870s. By that time, travel and communication between global research institutions allowed knowledge to be standardly measured and reliably repeated with the process of experimentation, data collection and repetition ensuring that mistakes were purged from the system over time.

We, as individuals, have no such performance standard. We consistently and continuously make mistakes with no idea that we even made a mistake. We claim to be our own expert but we are a completely biased, anecdotal story of one.

Science, over time and repetition, is a process that points the way to an ever-more accurate picture of reality. Individuals, over time, can continue to make the same mistake generation after generation after generation. For millennia we continued to fabricate emotionally pleasing philosophical and spiritual explanations for natural events instead of adopting the very simple procedure of scientific methodology: observe, measure, propose an explanation, test it and have someone else check your work because we are all prone to mistakes.

Why was this simple approach so elusive? Why couldn’t communities from 500, 1,000 or even 2,000 years ago process observations and information in a scientific manner. Humanity needed a tool to prevent us from making these individual and then collective false associations, generation after generation.

Mathematics seems to have escaped the disuse that has plagued Science through the millennia, and a comparison may suggest a reason for the reluctance to accept and use scientific methodology. Mathematics offends no one and its logic is impossible to refute.

Science on the other hand, has an inverse relationship with one of the other pillars of our society: religion. As Science explained more and more of the natural world, mystical/spiritual explanations were less and less necessary. This process may have inadvertently offended many religious people and slowed the acceptance of various scientific theories.

Science is humanity’s method for not fooling itself. It’s not an opinion or a belief. It is not my way against your way. Science is a tool for collecting repeatable evidence: a tool that ensures that beliefs, opinions, individual false associations and prejudices are purged from our collective understanding of the natural world.

In the words of Carl Sagan: “Science is not perfect. It is often misused. It’s only a tool, but it’s the best tool we have. Self-correcting, ever-changing, applicable to everything. With this tool, we vanquish the impossible.”

— Victor Dominocielo, a California-credentialed teacher for 36 years, is the human biology and health teacher at a local middle school. The opinions expressed are his own.

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