Thursday, October 1, 2015

On the "Myth" that Science Can't Prove Anything

It's pretty common in the world of religious apologetics to act as if any and all uncertainty is inherent room for God.  Belief in a god, is, after all, a philosophy of ignorance, and that type of argument is a popular form of the argument from ignorance.  The idea that nothing can technically be definitive or absolute in the realm of science means that a god is still a possibility.  To the religious, even the most remote of possibility is enough to say, "I'm justified in everything I believe."  To the religious fundamentalist, it means "the fact that I'm justified means it's automatically true and you have no right ever to believe anything else."  To the religious extremist, it means "being justified in believing it means it is morally correct to murder you for disagreeing with me."

While it is technically correct to say that science can't "prove" anything in the absolute sense of proof, that leaves out that what is possible on the basis of a technicality alone is not necessarily reasonable.  Still, you will hear the contention that because scientific consensus can, in principle, be overturned, we can't discount any possibility.  In the previous blog entry, I tried to cover the point that nothing is so cut and dry in science as to say anything definitive.  I'm not suddenly contradicting that -- it is still a fool's errand to look for cut and dry in a field where cut and dry can never really exist.  The thing is that that also applies to the "myth" that science can never prove anything.

Of course, there's a reason that I put "myth" in quotes.

There are countless examples in which the tales of science involve revolutions, and likewise, plenty of stories where previously existing scientific consensus gets overturned.  Nearly every scientist will tell you that we never assume that anything is right and operate on the possibility that everything we know could be untrue.  I recently took a class that kind of involved bringing a lot of hard science to sociological questions that had previously been ill-studied and that really resulted in turning a lot of common beliefs on their head.  Things like that give the impression that scientific consensus is a terribly fragile thing, and it's really not.