Scientific theories seem to be proven wrong quite often. This should come as no surprise for anyone versed in science, for the veracity of experimental models is continually being tested by new observations. The noted quantum physicist Richard Feynman said: “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.” This means that theories are only best guesses. They are predictive models constructed from a set of general assumptions which can be proven wrong. This highlights the inherently risky business of science. With each new prediction, the chances of the model being false increases. If we are to trust history, many of today’s accepted theories will, a century from now, be consigned to the garbage heap.
Given this transient nature of scientific knowledge, we can make the reasonable claim that science is ultimately wrong. We can guess that all models will expire; we don’t know what the expiry date is. Scientific truth is finally always only provisional, but that doesn’t make current scientific knowledge useless. On the contrary, the utility always comes with a price attached to it, and nature may recall her debt at any moment.
Our modern civilization is both the achievement and curse of our pursuit of knowledge, as it is built upon that debt. We have achieved vast improvements in our quality of life at the same time that we have created an enormous range of new problems, both known and unknown. Technology employs known scientific knowledge to advance human progress, while the unknown is what creates the unintended consequences.
Today, science plays a critical role in our lives, form the theories of internal combustion to cooking science, most of the reader of this book are very familiar with some science. While those born into modernity may now think of scientific knowledge as absolute, it wasn’t long ago when the leading voices of science were put on trial for heresy. It was just a few centuries ago when Galileo was tried and found guilty for his steadfast adherence to scientific truth over dogma. While the church won the battle, they lost the war. Today, knowledge is a taken for granted part of our lives.
Science tries to be right, but it advances by being wrong. To do this, it must embrace the pursuit of truth with open arms and collectively admit to errors when they appear. This ability to question itself is a crucial distinction that sets science apart from most religions – which hold that their basic tenets as eternal truths, which are not subject to change. As science advances, observations that contradict the predictions of models challenge the prevalent notion of truth. When contradictory views reach a crisis level, and a new model is born, it can bring about a paradigm shift.
Thus, the collective self-destruction of old models is intrinsic to scientific and cultural advancement. The truth of any current scientific statement is always judged by existing models, biasing what we consider truth. In a genuine sense then, we can say that as science advances, truth becomes a casualty of scientific progress. A more startling conclusion is that all science is could be considered false because we never reach the end of discovery.