« Learning about nature through provisional knowledge » as universal legacy

Science is one of the pillars of civilization and liberal democracy, as that eminent philosopher of science, Karl Popper, convincingly argued. It is, he said, « one of the greatest spiritual adventures man has yet known ». Because science rejects claims to truth based on authority and depends on the criticism of established ideas, it is the enemy of autocracy. Because scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, it is the enemy of dogma. Because it is the most effective way of learning about the physical world, it erodes superstition, ignorance and prejudice, which have been at the root of the denial of human rights throughout history, whether through racism, chauvinism or the suppression of the rights of women.

Dick Tavern, Nature v459, 2009



Yet it is important, when exposing such a view, to distinguish between science and its consequences (which are not « science » although they can be studied scientifically). I know some people  (me included) who acknowledge that things start to complicate once knowledge derived from science exits the inner circle of so-called « appointed scientists » to enter mass media, political cenacles, private companies, school/university teaching, etc, and this for numerous reasons (divergent interests, lack of time, environment pressure).

However, the reverse is true also. Miseries and vagaries of scientific understanding among people should not let us forgot that science is about going on doubting, aware of our ignorance but determined to expand our knowledge, ever and ever, through experiments and conceptualizations. And the words of Taverne, e.g. « tentative and provisional », are very much appealing to me. In the same vein, Richard Feynman once said that « science is the belief in the ignorance of experts » (talk here).

The challenge is all about conciliating science and its consequences, and being aware of what science is should not be too damaging.

Why writing all this? Because this topics was quite hot a few weeks ago…


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