Science is objective. Therefore, it has more predictive capacity of material world than common sense. Therefore, it is useful. Therefore, people has to pay attention to it. Therefore, society has to pay its bills. Science can be very useful tool for the society but if society doesn’t understand its nature then it can be totally ineffective tool. As it has become ineffective in environmental change debate.
The essential nature of science
Science is not so straightforward in practice. To gain a scientific knowledge, one has to go through following 3 challenges. Who is observing the objective reality?, How is the objective reality observed?, and What is concluded about the objective reality?
The objective reality can not manifest itself without an observer. A scientist along with some instruments is needed to observe the reality. The integrity of the scientist and his instruments have to be assumed otherwise the reported observations have no value in scientific sense. This integrity can’t be fully verified. Moreover, one can say that it is impossible to fully verify the integrity of the scientist and his instruments.
If a scientist embarks upon observing an objective reality then she has to make many decisions. She decides which experiments to conduct, which instruments to use, and which information about the objective reality to collect. The selected choices heavily depend on the personality of the scientist. The difficulty is that all objective realities depend upon infinitely many factors. No matter how carefully the scientist design the experiments, it can’t take all those factors into account. So, it is impossible to fully observe the objective reality under investigation.
After collecting those information about the objective reality. One has to make sense out of the information. At the final step, scientist has to supply considerably concise theory about the objective reality there is. For a given amount of information, there can be multiple explanation of the same objective reality. The scientist picks one explanation which makes most sense to her and reports it. So, it is quite likely that the produced explanation is not entirely correct.
How do in practice scientists deal with above 3 steps or 3 problem?
As we saw above that each of the 3 steps entails a kind of impossibility in achieving the desired goal. Following are the means using which scientist deal with each of the problem.
1. Who?– Respect in the Community & Redundancy
It is fair assumption that if the scientist has high integrity then she will use the instrument with high integrity. One individual can’t deal with such a high standards of personal integrity all the time. It is human nature to get easily seduced to lose one’s integrity. Therefore, scientific work is done in the form of communities. For each distinguishable subject matter, e.g. Physics and Biology, communities are formed. The individuals who belongs to the community observe an objective reality and report it back into the community. These reports are read by the community members and they critically assess the integrity of the report, i.e., assessing integrity of the observer. More often someone reports trustworthy facts, one becomes more respected. Meanwhile, other individuals of the community try to observe the same objective reality. This redundant work may verify the previous observations or some times they may show that previous work had mistakes. In result, we learn a set of observations which are correct ‘beyond reasonable doubt‘.
2. How?– Standardization
The community of scientist soon face the problem of the second step. They slowly achieve consensus among themselves that what and how much should be observed to gain confidence on collected observations. This standardized procedure is commonly referred as the accurate methodology of experiments. They refuse to accept reports which doesn’t comply with this minimum standard of methodology of experiments. Notice that this standardization of the observation procedure is not done by an individual but by some set of individuals. In result, we use a methodology which is useful ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
3. What?– Regress and endless discussions
Scientist carefully examine collected data and propose the potential theories to explain the reality. They debate endlessly about these theories. They refute most of the proposed theories in their course of discussion eventually they left with few contending theories. This provoke more need of collecting observations such that we can conclude at the final theory and refute other contending theories. As these new observations come in, more mysteries unfold and more discussions provoked. This process is summarized by the philosopher Hegel as Thesis, Anti-thesis, and synthesis (Dialectic). Observe that this can be endless process or may take very long time to synthesize the final theory. So at any movement of time, we have a set of potential theories which explains the reality ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
Perception of science in society
People in general are indifferent with how scientists work. They have seen significant benefit came out of scientific investigations therefore it is not a bad idea to pay for scientists. The problem comes on the surface when society demands actual advice on matters of the science. People in general demand definite answer from scientists with complete certainly. As we have observed, the scientist can only respond with a theory beyond reasonable doubt.
For example, people regularly go to Doctors and get advice for their health. A doctor can only tell his patient that if he takes this medicine then he may potentially get better. Unfortunately, most people take their doctor’s word as a word of certainly. If the patient doesn’t get better than he only curses the doctor and goes to another one.
Environmental change debate
People some times demand advice from scientists for public policies. Such as, up coming environmental disaster. People want to know how the environment is changing. How bad is the impact of human activity? How much time is left before this environmental change can’t be reversed? Is there any problem at all?
If really there is upcoming environmental disaster then people have to act collectively. This has triggered a great debate of environmental change. People ask scientist to come up with an advice. Some individual scientists produce articles which describes a potential theory which says that there are global events in environment which indicate significant change in Eco system of Earth. The articles also suggest to control emission of green house gases, reduce exploitation of natural resources, and protect wild life.
Some powerful people don’t like their suggestion. These suggestion may change the public policies which might take away fortune of these powerful people(owner ship of coal mines, forest land, or low production of oil). They start a reverse campaign against those scientists. They say the proposed theories are not full and final. These theories are simply potential theories. They conclude that these theories have no more value than personal opinion of the scientist who is writing them.
As scientists observe this move in the debate. They say that our theories has more value than opinion. The scientific community comes together and publish a common statement about the theory they believe in. As we have discussed before that a proposed theory has to be accepted by the scientific community at large to become a scientific theory(or a theory beyond reasonable doubt).
In public eye, this appears to be a political action taken by the scientist. These statements are dismissed on the ground that scientific truth can only be stated by a single person not a community.
In result, voice of scientist is lost in this squabble over who? how? what? is trustworthy.