How Trustworthy Is Science?

Science is man-made. It consists of facts and the explanations of facts. Facts are gathered by man through his senses. Explanations are the products of the mind. Therefore the trustworthiness of science may be measured by the accuracy of human senses and the clearness of human thought.

The senses of man are greatly limited. A beloved friend a few hundred feet away is but one of hundreds of indistinct, passing figures. The eye cannot see far, clearly. The common speech of man becomes but a confused murmur a short distance away. The ear cannot hear distant sounds, clearly. Far enough away the eye does not at all distinguish figures, or the ear, sounds. So with the other senses.

Further, no two pairs of eyes see exactly alike. No matter how careful and honest the observers are, the moon is not of the same size to them, nor the length of a measured stick. Knowing this, men of science make repeated observations of the same phenomenon, and then seek other observers to check the findings. Even then the final result is only an average of observations made, approaching the full truth. Ever competent scientist is aware, often painfully, of these limitations placed upon the senses of man.

Moreover, the eye is sensitive only to a small part of the wave spectrum. Above and below the visible spectrum are greater invisible fields. The ear can detect only a small span of sound waves. A more sensitive hearing organ would hear a universe of sound now closed to man. The unaided senses of man at the best can know only a very small part of the universe in which man dwells.

To increase the power of the senses, aids to the senses, instruments, have been devised.

However all aids to man's senses, instruments made by human hands, lie under definite and often serious limitations. The accuracy of the telescope is decreased by distortions due to the nature of the glass of the lenses; there are disturbing reflections, refractions, and colored fringes that hinder clear vision. The most fundamental constants of science are not absolutely correct. The velocity of light, atomic weights, the force of gravity, and the many other constants from which [he pattern of science is woven, are but approximations, often very close, to the true values. There is always a margin of error. The true scientist admits this, and works on with the powers at his command towards a higher degree of accuracy.

Scientific explanations, products of thoughtful reflection and reasoning upon observed facts, are often nothing more than shrewd guesses or good probabilities. That the sun rises in the east and sets in the west is an unchanging fact of human experience. In earlier days, and for centuries, it was held that this observation was due to the daily journey of the sun around the earth. Now, with new facts at our command, we explain night and day by the complete rotation of the earth upon its axis, every twenty-four hours. A straight stick placed in a glass of water looks bent. That is an age-old observation, the explanation of which has been changed several times. The nebular hypothesis long explained the origin of the solar system; now another inference holds sway. In the subatomic world of electrons new discoveries are made almost daily, and the explanations are in constant flux. Chromosomes now hold the center of the stage in the field of heredity, but the explanations of their relationship to the properties of life are the present guesses of the best scholars, which may be overturned tomorrow. Newton was only recently pushed out of his old place by Einstein. No scientific worker worthy of his task attempts to give a scientific explanation a higher standing than that of an intelligent guess, supported by existing facts. New discoveries may modify or upset the explanation (Einstein and Infeld, The Evolution of Physics).

The rising and setting of the sun, the bent stick in the pool are safe facts of experience. The exact length of the day or the degree of bending of the stick may not be determined with absolute accuracy by our poor senses. But such facts are immeasurably more trustworthy than the general explanations of such current, well-established facts. Facts of observation are generally more trustworthy than inferences by the mind.

Cocksureness in science is a mark of the immature often self-deceived, worker with nature. Those who have moved man's knowledge and control of nature forward, and greatly, have always stood humbly before the inexhaustible ocean of the unknown which they are trying to explore.

Science is trustworthy as far as human senses and reason are trustworthy -- no more. When the credentials of science are examined, the claims of religion seem more credible than ever. (Cook, The Credentials of Science, the Warrant of Faith).

 

Flower in the crannied wall,

I pluck you out of the crannies,

I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,

Little flower -- but if I could understand

What you are, root and all, and all in all

I should know what God and man is

-- Tennyson

 

(John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations [Salt Lake City: Improvement Era], 143-145.)

 

 
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