Saturday, February 12, 2005

Step by step

Science is not the big bang, or plate tectonics, or string theory, or natural selection, or any other scheme by which we seek to understand the world.

Science is a social activity, perfected over the centuries, for establishing reliable consensus knowledge. Scientific theories are partial, tentative, refined in the fire of empirical experience, and subject on occasion to radical change. Perhaps the greatest strength of science is that its methodologies and communications make no reference to the faith, gender, politics, culture, or ethnicity of the contributing scientist.

I trust the collectivity of science more than I trust my own instincts for truth. I remember what Francis Bacon wrote: "What a man would like to be true, he preferentially believes." My faith in science is based on humility, and confidence in a way of knowing honed through the ages by men and women with a keen sense of limitations.

The physicist Heinz Pagels wrote: "Centuries ago, when some people suspended their search for absolute truth and began instead to ask how things worked, modern science was born. Curiously, it was by abandoning the search for absolute truth that science began to make progress, opening the material universe to human exploration."