As a science educator, I began every course trying to help my students understand this human endeavor we call science. Most beginning college students come to class with an idea about science, a belief. For sure, different students embrace different ideas, but there is a common meme in the public mind.
We generally believe that science is about finding truth. The same could be said for religion and the criminal justice system, but we know these institutions are different. In religions, there are articles of faith, beliefs that remain constant over time among the devout. Our criminal justice system seeks the truth by determining a person’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Science has no absolute articles of faith, and science cannot remove all doubt. Science seeks to understand, but science can never know everything. The best science can do is develop amorphous theories, constantly changing bodies of knowledge no matter how well accepted they might become. Verdicts may be settled, your spiritual beliefs may resist change, political contests result in elections that are over and done, but science is never settled. No matter how much we know about anything, there is always more to learn.
Science is about the process. It is a method for seeking greater knowledge. Settled knowledge is dogma and dogma is not science.
The history of science is replete with well-accepted ideas that turned out to be wrong. Some of these ideas caused death. George Washington most likely died before his time because of bad medical science. Low-fat diets contribute to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes because of bad nutritional science thrust on an unsuspecting public by our government. Now we have people who believe in their hearts that we can stop the planet from warming if we just stop burning fossil fuels. And if you disagree, they will call you names like “denier” or worse. They might even try to assassinate your character, even destroy your career.
Governments are the worst offenders because they have the power to create laws and regulations that institutionalize bad science. For decades, people bought low-fat foods without realizing they were eating excessive quantities of unhealthy carbohydrates. This led to fatty tissue compromising the functioning of vital organs such as the liver and even the brain while depriving their bodies of essential nutrients. Even the labeling of certain foods can be very confusing, misleading consumers to purchase or not purchase certain foods contrary to their best interests.
How easy is it to change a law or a regulation that is based upon bogus science? Imagine a coalition of state attorneys-general who seek to prosecute people who embrace a different understanding or challenge conventional wisdom. Someone should write a book about bad science through the centuries and the tragic consequences. Perhaps it has already been written. Bad science is made worse by zealots and dictators who use their powers to stifle open enquiry.
Scientists themselves can be very dogmatic. After all, they are human. Like the rest of us, they like to hold onto ideas they find emotionally satisfying. Other ideas might be threatening to them, requiring the overturning of long-held beliefs. Remaining open-minded is not easy for us humans.
Be very afraid of the scientist or anyone who claims to know scientific truth. Be especially concerned about any person who insults and tries to intimidate others who hold different ideas. Many scientific breakthroughs occur because a lone voice challenges a well-accepted theory.
In science, dogma is a burden. It closes our eyes and our minds to possibilities. It gives license to people who want to control the lives of other people. Let’s not let this happen.