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Can we say that science is always right?

When people say for example – The MMR vaccine is safe – we hope that science is always right. However, the basis of science is that things can never be proven with absolute complete certainity. No experiment or even thousands of experiments ever prove anything with absolute certainity. A certain experiment(s) only show the most probable outcome or truth with a particular degree of certainity. Therefore science is probably right but there is always a very very small chance it is not. Should we not except this in society a little more? People lose faith in science when results change or new results are discovered – but in fact that is simply the nature of discovery.

Jennifer Mitchell from Dorset (Age 25-34)

Answer:

Lee-Ann Coleman from the British Library gives her response in the format of video clips hosted on YouTube – go to http://www.youtube.com/user/BritishAssociation

More about the British Library –

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s greatest research libraries. The Library’s collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation.

Lee-Ann Coleman joined the British Library in 2007 to take up the post of Head of Scientific, Technical and Medical Information. For ten years prior to that, she worked in science policy and administration, and gained experience in the funding, university and medical research charity sectors.

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6 Responses

  1. Your are right in what you say. Whether in science or engineering, we only know that things work because we have tried and tested them.

    We can build mathematical models to simulate the events, but only when we create the item and test it do we really know it will work. That is because in all mathematical models and theories there will always be assumptions. We make assumptions based on past experience. If we are using a technology in a new application there will always be doubt as to whether it will work until it has been tested.

    With medicines, the outcome is affected by our individual physiologies. Just because a medicine works for lots of people it doesn’t mean it will work for everybody. So, if there is a 1 in 1 million chance of a bad reaction to a medicine, then you would probably choose to take it. However, if you are that 1 person that it is not very good. It’s a question of weighing up the benefits to the 999,999 people against the 1 with a bad reaction. It’s a tough call because if you are that 1 then it’s disastrous for you. As we all have our own physiologies, then the medicine can’t be tested on us all before use.

    It all comes down to risk. You are more likely to be seriously injured the next time you drive down the motorway, than from taking a medicine.

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    I do agree with you, but I think there might be another issue here, and that is that in general most people tend to think of science as being a set of facts. Whereas science is actually a methodology, and central to that methodology is debate and interpretation. At the cutting edge of science there will always be contention and argument.

    This is particularly true in medicine where researchers must deal with each individual and cannot precisely control all aspects of the experiments like physicists can in their laboratories.

    In my opinion science moves forward incrementally. For example when Einstein published his theory of gravitation it did not immediately invalidate Newton’s theory of gravity. Einstein’s theory was more precise, or alternatively Newton’s theory was an approximation. They are both correct. Furthermore we know that a new theory will come which will reproduce the results of Einstein and Newton but be much more precise than either.

  3. Science is not always right. If you go back to about 1900, the famous scientist Lord Kelvin said ‘There is nothing new to be discovered in physics, now all that remains is more precise measurement’. Of course he was wrong, for in the early 20th century Einstein revolutionized physics with his theory of relativity and about the same time quantum mechanics appeared. Yet when Kelvin said this he was at his pinnacle as a scientist, with all sorts of distinctions, a peerage, President of the Royal Society, various medals – he absolutely represented the scientific establishment in Victorian Britain.
    I would say that ideas of physical reality as described by science are not absolute and change according to current observations and theories. Of course, dare I say it; science is considerably influenced by politics.

  4. I think it depend on what you call ‘science’. For example, we’re all familiar with scientific method (see it, try to explain it, do an experiment to see if you were right) but there are plenty of things that are hard to study in this way. What if we wanted to know something about a particular group of people – the English, say? Could we come up with a theory of ‘Englishness’ to explain them, could we observe them objectively, could we gain anything by experimenting on them, or would we need some other method of finding out?

  5. Very good question and answers. I would add that questioning, debating and answering is part of good science. Good correct answers have area of relevance where they have a local value. Knowing where one set of answers start to lose their relevance raises the next question. Newton’s answers about planetary motion work for many people. But Einstein’s relativistic answers have a broader set of relevances and predict the motion of the planet Mercury more accurately. There is a lot to learned from knowing where answers breakdown.

  6. Science is based on how we perceive the world around us. We can’t actually be sure that what we’re sensing is truly what is out there (seen the Matrix?), so we can never say that science is definitely right. Nor can we say that about anything that we perceive in my opinion.

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