“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman
When can we say that we truly know something?
For the majority of our existence, humankind has not actually known how to answer this question satisfactorily. We were asked to believe things, often we were even forced to believe them. But we never quite figured out how to separate the wheat from the chaff until we discovered the scientific method.
The scientific method
Science is what brought us out from under the clouded sky of false certainty. It ended the dark ages and started shifting us away from the paradigm of religions. The universe opened up all of the sudden. Science gave us the freedom to wonder about things that, until then, were thought of as ‘understood’ while, in fact, they weren’t.
The power of science is perfectly illustrated in Yuval Noah Harari’s wonderful book Sapiens, which attributes Europe becoming the world’s center of power in the early modern period to its scientific thinking and behaving. European imperialism, for example, was made possible by a drive for discovery at a time when other empires assumed they already understood the world.
The scientific method is extremely simple: we come up with some theory of how the world works. We then formulate a hypothesis or prediction based on this theory, manipulate something in the (real or simulated) world, and observe the effects of our manipulations. Finally, we express how strong these effects were, how certain we are of them (i.e. to what extend we can expect these effects to always occur) and whether we can generalize them to fit our theory. For the latter, we typically need much more than one set of experiments.
An important thing to note here is that we never actually prove a hypothesis. We can only try our absolute best to disprove it and then say something about how hard we’ve tried. If we try hard to disprove hypotheses that fit our theory and repeatedly fail at that, we grow more confident about our theory.
Thus a scientific theory may become a practically useful form of ‘truth’. And no matter the metaphysical arguments one might come up with against this definition of truth, when a theory can put us on the moon, it at least is true enough for practical applications.
Now, of course, mistakes are made along the way. We’re all human. But that’s the whole thing about real science: pointing out mistakes is applauded! We are in this boat together, trying to disprove everything and hoping to find something that remains standing despite our best efforts.
In science, discussion is considered useful and not “a lack of faith”. This is highly beneficial if we want to make valid claims about how the world works. Coming up with ideas and debating them is extremely important. Because if we know one thing for certain, it’s that we humans are easily fooled by our sense.
Why it took us so long to discover Evolution Theory
Darwin’s Evolution Theory is a prime example of a beautiful scientific theory that we are really certain about. In his book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins talks about how it took us surprisingly long to uncover the basis of evolution: natural selection, and how its discovery was likely blocked by a (Platonian) essentialist tendency that resides in all of us.
We are simply easily fooled by our senses. We know rabbits as they currently are, so we assume there must be some kind of ‘average’ rabbit from which all rabbits grow. However, it isn’t so simple. This bell-shaped curve we imagine with our average rabbit at its center, is on an ever-evolving continuum. The average rabbit of today isn’t the same as the one of 10.000 years ago. And if we go back far enough, there is a common ancestor, which may not look like anything we even know today but still exists, connecting every species to every other species.
Obviously this is not something we can actually observe, and it’s inferred from the theory of evolution. But the evidence for it is overwhelming. We have tried to disprove the theory of evolution many, many times and failed. That’s how we know that, at least to some extend, we can consider it to be true.
Problems with the applications of science
So why am I talking about this?
Well, because I think that science is the only true means we have of debating truth. And the above exemplifies how laborious it is to be able to say whether we can consider something to be true or not.
Science is not something we can always easily use, you see. It works really well on relatively simple systems but for more complex systems (with many, many unpredictable variables such as social systems) it becomes increasingly difficult and usually less exact.
And so science is abused a lot. Popular “scientific” books are written on topics such as nutrition and behaviour, where they cherry pick results and use single studies (that have not even really tried hard to disprove a theory) to make their point.
This is why we have books making “scientific” claims about western meat consumption causing a cancer epidemic, while other books claim that vegetarian food is unnatural and is therefore, in fact, the ultimate cause of an increase in cancer patients.
The problem here is that it’s now completely unclear what we can and should believe. Do we still trust science? It leads many people to believe that science is useless and that, for example, global warming is not real despite overwhelming evidence.
False certainty in today’s world
In today’s era of fake news and Internet bogus, it’s as important as ever (perhaps more) that we ask ourselves how certain we are about things.
I know many people who, when reading a news-head that starts with “scientists say,” abandon all skepticism and just accept the content as true. Yet, for each such person I know another who does not trust science at all, who points out all the controversy and just has his own truth to believe in.
I think both these groups of people are completely wrong but, in a way, they are both also a little bit right. I believe science is the only way through which we can objectively approach truth. However, that does not mean that science is not messy business. Science is never the actual truth, which we should already know because it does not claim to be. It’s just the closest thing to it.
We should also realise that what newspapers and popular books write about science isn’t the same thing as a scientific paper, which includes nuances and puts the experimental results in a broader context. Many non-scientific sources create an illusion of certainty. Sometimes they overvalue science, sometimes they ignore it completely. Either case is wrong.
If you really want to understand what’s going on, you will probably need to dive into the material yourself and understand some basics about the field you are reading about. This is something I would recommend to anyone who feels like having a productive debate on some matter. It has never been easier to educate yourself on certain fields of science, just look for courses on Coursera or Udemy, or one of the other countless online learning platforms.
How certain can we be?
So, how certain can we be? Well, the truth is that in daily matters, we are often not very certain. A lot of social and political issues do not lend themselves to the more rigorous of scientific methods as they are simply too complex or do not involve (currently) testable variables.
That is not to say that we cannot approach such problems scientifically, but it means that in the fields where we perhaps need to be most rigorous and careful, we are often a bit sloppy and overestimate the questionable results we get. I’m not sure why that is.
It’s also important to note that we can only address a matter scientifically when we are able to formulate a testable hypothesis. If we cannot, then science is out of the question. This excludes many questions of morality, such as whether it’s “good” to try this or that.
With that in mind, I think it’s completely valid to, apart from science, rely on people’s expertise in many practical matters. However, we must never confuse the concept of truth with this expertise. That it sounds logical, does not make it true. And that it feels right, does not make it right. Even though logic and intuition may certainly have some place in a political discussion, we must always wonder about testable facts.
And when science isn’t going to help us further solve a problem, we still need scientific skepticism. We need to distinguish expert opinion from scientific truth. It’s the only way for us to have a constructive conversation about any important topic.
We must recognise that we don’t know anything for certain, and that we can only know something to be true to a certain degree. This should be reflected in how strongly we believe things. We must exercise our tolerance for uncertainty.
So let’s be uncertain, let’s try to disprove our own beliefs rather than just surmounting evidence for them. Freedom of speech is paramount and we can never allow it to be restricted for whatever reason. Let’s be sceptics, but of the curious kind who want to understand things, not the kind that piss on real evidence in order to feel good about their faulty values.
We don’t all have to be scientists, but we do all need to accept uncertainty and understand what science is and what it isn’t. If we fail at that, we become victims of international media, victims of our newsfeeds, victims of what authorities want us to believe, victims of our own irrational tendencies.
Nearly all of us have access to the tools of educating ourselves. Let’s use them! The internet has made information gathering much easier, yet it has also made us lazy and unfocused. We cannot read a single headline and let that be our go-to opinion from now on. Ignorance is the real issue here, it always has been. So seek to move towards uncertainty, that means reading arguments against your opinions and allowing the opposition to speak their minds. Only then the world can actually move forward.
Richard Feynman on science and uncertainty
I would like to end this post with a passage from Nobel Prize laureate Richard Feynman from the book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. I also highly recommend that you read this full transcript of Feynman’s Caltech Commencement address in 1974 on Cargo Cult Science.
“It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.
That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.”