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Are facts always true?A philosopher explains how to tell the difference

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Astronomers once believed The sun was orbiting around the earth. In the 19th century, scientists believed that the shape of a person’s skull revealed a person’s mental strength or weakness. And he vehemently opposed the idea of ​​continental drift by many scientists in the 20th century. Since then, all views have been completely overturned.

So can we trust scientific truths today? Is it possible to identify scientific ideas and claims that will last forever and be immune to future scientific revolutions? . But my new book Identifying promising sciencewhich combines historical, philosophical, and sociological research to argue that it is often possible.

practicing humility

At various points in history, scientists revolutionized the field by discovering states of matter that defied the old physics.KATERYNA KON / Science Photo Library / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

There is a philosophical stance sometimes called intellectual humility. This involves looking at evidence from scientific revolutions and paradigm shifts (changes in systems of belief and knowledge) in history and questioning whether there is an ultimate truth.

At first, this looks like a lot of sense. Perhaps even reasonable. I might add that humility is a virtue. Who can be sure that the scientific claims that are upheld today will still be upheld by an active scientific community 5,000 years from now?

Those who are skeptical of scientific claims often adopt simple arguments. Scientists were convinced in the past, but were ultimately wrong: physicist Albert Michelson (of Michelson-Morley experiments) wrote in his 1903: Discovery is very far away. “

This was shortly before physics changed dramatically with the development of general relativity and quantum mechanics. There are many other such quotes, clearly demonstrating the overconfidence of even the best scientists.

Historian and science advocate Naomi Oreskes wrote in her 2019 book: Reasons to trust science “The history of science shows that scientific truth is perishable,” he said. “The contribution of science cannot be considered permanent.”

Physicist Nobel Prize winner Steven Weinberg said, “There is truth out there to be discovered, and truth once discovered will form an enduring part of human knowledge.”

But Oreskes’ reaction is harsh. “Weinberg is a fine man…but this comment reflects either a shocking ignorance of the history of science or a shocking disregard for evidence gleaned from another field.”

she means history.

Scientific Facts vs Historical Truths

So what is a “scientific fact”? According to intellectual humility, “facts” exist only in a weak sense. They are fleeting and relevant to the current paradigm. Historical paradigm shifts often left “facts” behind and replaced them with new facts.

Those who advocate intellectual humility are not necessarily saying that nothing is permanent. They say they don’t know which claims (if any) will be immune to future paradigm shifts. Oreskes is perfectly clear about that.

But intellectual humility starts to look absurd when it comes to its logical conclusion. Be it the sun is a star, the continents move, smoking causes cancer, or what we really don’t know is that modern global warming is real and caused by humans. means

In all these cases (and many more), the scientific community long ago put the question beyond reasonable doubt. Following the scientific revolution, it’s absurd to assume that he might look back 50 years later and say, “People believed smoking caused cancer.”

If it were reasonable, one might think that the earth might be flat. It is speculated that he may be living in a dream. truman show.

But what if I think this way only because I’m a cognitive prisoner, trapped in the conceptual picture of the paradigm I grew up with? It seems completely undeniable, and it seems silly to doubt it. But for those living in the paradigm of the future, it may not seem so absurd.

Observe what was previously unobservable

The philosopher and astronomer Galileo was ridiculed in his time for discoveries about the solar system that defied established paradigms.mikroman6/moment/Getty Images

There is much to be learned from history. For example, consider the story of continental drift. Moving continents was once a mere speculation. Then, in the 20th century, it became a solid theory and eventually a “scientific fact,” a common view among scientists.

At this point, skeptics might think that a firm scientific consensus proves nothing. But let’s see what happened next. We have developed an instrument that can actually observe continental drift in real time. Continental drift is therefore clearly a future. I can see that happening.

Developments like this are crucial to show that a solid scientific consensus can be linked to truth. As my book shows, scientific consensus is validated when a truly solid scientific consensus is followed by the development of tools that allow observation of the object or process in question.

There are many examples. We now have a microscope that can reveal the behavior of viruses. Viruses are doing what we already knew.

Microscopy can also be used to ascertain the structure of any kind of molecule, but in any case if there is a firm scientific consensus about its structure (e.g. a hexagonal molecule of benzene rings), its Consensus is right. So is the double helix structure of DNA.

These cases demonstrate that a strong international scientific consensus can be trusted to reveal the truth. This includes cases where the technology has not yet been (and may never be) developed to allow us to observe what is currently unobservable.

What about the concern that in the past the scientific community came to a strong consensus on an idea that is now outright rejected?

Throughout the history of science, I have found that if two specific criteria are met, the claim in question is not overturned, but simply further supported.

1. At least 95% of relevant scientists are willing to articulate their claims without warning or hedges. If prompted, they will call it “established scientific fact.”

2. The relevant scientific community is large and international and incorporates fairly diverse perspectives (eg climate science).

These criteria are met only when there is a large body of primary scientific evidence for the claims in question. They stand as the best surrogate ever for the impossible alternative, the analysis of decades of all scientific evidence for ourselves from a multitude of different perspectives. , these two simple rules help identify promising science.

This article was originally published on conversation To Peter Vickers at Durham University. Read the original article here.