On intellectual integrity – The importance of social endorsement of the scientific method
I have written many times about the astonishing contradiction of our times that more and more people live a life in highest comfort, total safety and with an unprecedented degree of health into old age, and at the same time think that the state of the world is bad and getting worse. Both possess the same trigger –the scientific and technological progress, as readers of my articles and books know as well. But there is yet another paradox attached to this contrast: Regarding questions concerning the functioning of nature (and more and more also that of man) science is considered the highest authority of truthtoday. At the same time science finds it very difficult to connect to this term, that has its origin in philosophy, but whose home discipline has never been able to determine exactly what it designates. For the sciences teach us the dynamics of a constant questioning of the status quo of our own intellectual soundness and the never-ending critical reflection of our present thinking, knowing and believing. And there is little room for fixed and eternally immutable truths in this.
For non-scientists this apparent contradictoriness of the scientific mind is not easy to understand. What is normal in science, namely that every scientific finding is always doubted and controversially discussed within the scientific community, causes uncertainty among laypersons – and unfortunately seems to allow politicians to put their hands in their laps when it comes to important scientific questions like climate change, right after the motto: „Look, the scientists don’t agree themselves! Then how are we supposed to know what to do?”
In addition, science itself has not always lived up to its claim of intellectual modesty. Scientific knowledge gain and stubbornness do not get along, but at the same time the latter was often important for the former. Galilei remained firm inhis once expressed opinion that the sun is at the center of the world and was not prepared to engage in any serious discourseabout it (although at the time there were still many indications that his view might be wrong). It could be seen as a coincidence that it was him that later proved to be on the side of those who were right. In other cases, however, he was on the wrong side: For example, until the end of his life he rejected Kepler’s proof that the planets were moving in elliptical orbits. And he was also mistaken when, in his major work Dialogo („Galileo Galilei’s Dialogue on the Two Major Systems of the World, the Ptolemaic and Copernican“), he cited the tides of the oceans as empirical proof of the Copernican view of the world. The rotation of the earth around its axis and around the sun is the cause of the tides, he said, as „the waters are accelerated and moved back and forth“ (he was so sure of his case that he had even called the first version of his today most famous work „Discourse on ebb and Tide“). He should have known that he was wrong, as already at his time it was well known that the tides are relatedto the cycles of the moon and not with the position of the sun.
Scientists had to learn laboriously that at their respective times they were in no position to know many things exactly, and that the longing for final certainties leads to hollowness. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that the theory of relativity and quantum physics brought about a radical change in science’s claim for truth. Unfortunately, these theories are very difficult for laymen to comprehend, they even seem to contradict common sense. Science today is no longer about formulating absolute truths, but about getting as close as possible to truth.
Already Galileo’s somewhat older contemporary Francis Bacon had described that the course of scientific knowledge is far less straightforward than it may appear in historical retrospect. Quite the opposite: the search for knowledge is almost inevitably associated with detours and mistakes. And Galileo was to be followed by many scientists who made mistakes, including the most important ones in history. Partly because they misinterpreted the observations, partly because they refused to acknowledge facts that spoke against their view of the world. Often, they were aware that the theories they had developed only came close to the truth, but that decisive insights were still lacking. Even the great Albert Einstein was not immune to mistakes, as we know today, for he erred in his interpretation of quantum physics (which became apparent much after his time,however). In fact, the vast majority of scientific theories to this day have proved to be wrong, or at least only valid to some limited extent. Neither Newton’s theory of gravity and mechanics nor Maxwell’s theory of electrodynamics were the last words in physics. And even today’s standard model of elementary particle physics, based on a unified relativistic quantum field theory, is just waiting to be replaced by a more universal model. But this is precisely the great strength of modern science: it is so successful, not despite that it constantly has to correct errors and improve theories, but exactly because it does.
Richard Feynman once famously said: „Religion is a culture of faith, science is a culture of doubt“. And more than 800 years before him, the medieval theologian and philosopher Peter Abelard wrote: „Through doubt we come to investigation; in investigation we grasp truth“. With all the rational modesty and methodical doubt and with the intellectual integrity of science, today we understand the world around us much better than with the help of dogmas that pretended to know with absolute certainty how things really are. The realization that most scientific theories have ultimately turned out to be wrong or only partially correct helps us to accept mistakes. So, it is only an apparent contradiction: By recognizing and allowing our own flaws, we are making fewer mistakes in describing the world than ever before. We owe this to the power of the ever-self-critical rationalism of science. This constitutes the very foundation of the Enlightenment.
Against this background, it becomes clear how dangerous it is that today we must observe a growing skepticism towards scientists and scientific insights. For many people, the discussions among scientists and the process of getting to scientific knowledge, often the result of a chain of errors, have little credibility. Errors in scientific work or the problems of a theory are used as evidence to discredit science as a whole. That they thus fall victim to a classic category mistake (the fallibility of individual scientists as humans and the fact that theories never reflect „the whole truth“ does not question science as a method) unfortunately escapes most critics of science and deniers of scientific knowledge. Rather, they try to protect their own truths from the sharpness of scientific skepticism.
Particularly impressively we find this mechanism at work in today’s discussion about climate change. The unpleasant insight, scientifically however better and better proven, that our climate is changing, namely by human actions, is attacked again and again, and this not with scientific arguments, but based on political calculation, which consciously accepts lies and deception. Every slight contradiction and every minimal deviation between scientific theory and measurement is taken maliciously as an indication that the climate scientists themselves do not know what they are doing.
Another, no less dangerous development is when „self-declared experts“ try to take advantage of scientific skepticism to justify their own, often completely abstruse theories. The commentary lines of scientific blogs are packed with people who believe they have refuted the theory of relativity or who use the apparent contradictions of quantum theory to fundamentally condemn the world view of modern physics, without even coming close to having the necessaryscientific education for that. The modern digital media enable these people to spread any type of abstruse nonsense. Yes, science is open and lives from doubt and skepticism. But it is also razor-sharp in its rejection of nonsense and opinionated delusion. Its methodology does not allow everyone to contradict everything and to come up with their own truths. Rather, it requires great intellectual discipline to engage in its critical method and to be confronted with the sharp but equally fruitful discourse on the path towards truth. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s cup of tea, and so, equally unfortunately, science quickly falls into the discredit of having its „own“ (i.e. false) truths.
Exactly this fateful impression we must fight against! It is impossible to solve the complex problems of our time in an environment in which science is openly discredited. Quite the opposite: the principle of trial and error, intellectual discipline and integrity must find their way much more into the everyday lives of all of us. Even lay people, like scientists, must learn to cope with the fact that there exist no absolute truths, but powerful methods to uncover untruths, however pleasant these may have been for us. Us succeeding in that effort could proof the decisive point for mankind’s survival.