Scientific discovery has allowed societies throughout time to advance and excel. Proven facts and findings support many good decisions because they have been proven reliable. Even today, science and objective data are considered the gold standard when it comes justifications for good decision-making. But is science always correct, and should we always choose our actions based on science? Absolutely not. But the tough part is knowing when we should stick to science and when we should ignore the facts. Navigating this gap where scientific errors and mistakes in science abound can be quite challenging.
At one time, science supported the notion that the world was flat. Those who opposed such views, including explorers and astronomers, were ostracized for their anti-science views. But time proved them to be correct in suggesting scientific errors existed. And the same is true today when it comes to mistakes in science. This is not to suggest that science is not essential in helping us understand the world we live in. Science can also help increase our longevity. But science is not the end-all, be-all upon which all decisions should be based. In fact, there are several reasons why this is the case. (Curious about the developments in reversing the aging process and extending life? Check out this Bold story.)
“Science does not give us absolute and final certainty. It only gives us assurance within the limits of our mental abilities and the prevailing state of scientific thought.” – Ludwig von Mises
Scientific Errors – The Foundation of Study
When it comes to the scientific method, one thing has to be clearly understood. Scientists do not set out to prove a theory is right. They actually try to prove that something is not true. In other words, by ruling out what isn’t accurate, they eventually get closer to what is correct. In research, scientists call this the null hypothesis, or the hypothesis that they hope to prove invalid. If their experiments are correct, they move one step closer to the truth. But the process must be repeated several times and refined before clear evidence is revealed. This is why mistakes in science are actually more common than one might think. Science can certainly get us closer to the real answers, which helps in making the best decisions. But scientific errors in interpretation are not uncommon. This must be appreciated when using science as the basis for the choices to be made.
“I think mistakes are the essence of science and law. It’s impossible to conceive of either scientific progress or legal progress without understanding the important role of being wrong and of mistakes.” – Alan Dershowitz
The Human Factor – Scientists Make Mistakes Too
To err is human, so the idiom goes. Each of us have our own set of biases, prejudices, assumptions, and motivations, and this includes scientists and researchers. There have been many instances where an investigator fudged data in an effort to prove what he or she thought was valid. It is even more common for scientists to overlook important facts because they are inconsistent with what they believe. This has been called an escalation of commitment to something that isn’t true simply because it’s contrary to one’s beliefs. The scientific method is designed to help avoid these types of scientific errors. But even so, mistakes in science occur all the time simply because human fallacies exist. If we’re to make our best decisions, we must acknowledge mistakes in science sometimes occur because scientists themselves are human.
“Do I know I’m right? Judgments aren’t the same as facts. Instinct is not science. I’m like any other human being, as fallible and as capable of being wrong. I only know what I believe.” – Tony Blair
Instinct and Intuition – A Vacuum in Science
Science is grounded in facts, reason and rational thought. In order to determine something is valid, objective evidence must be found. No matter how much past experiences or gut feelings suggest an answer, science will refrain from judgment until there’s proof. But when it comes to good decision-making, we must use both evidence and intuition. Noble Prize winner Daniel Kahneman describes reason as our slow-thinking system and intuition as our fast-thinking one. Both have developed over the course of human evolution, and both are required to make accurate judgments. Science, however, tends to ignore gut instincts except when developing hypotheses. And because of this, scientific errors and mistakes in science can occur as well. Today, we are seeing artificial intelligence being used increasingly for sole decision-making. While AI is changing many industries in positive ways, this must be pursued with some level of caution.
“If speculative ideas cannot be tested, they’re not science; they don’t even rise to the level of being wrong.” – Wolfgang Pauli
Science and Praxeology
Praxeology is the study of human choices and actions. Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises was among one of the most reputable individuals interested in this field. Particularly from an economic perspective, he believed human behavior to be both intentional and purposeful. Understanding this, Ludwig was supportive of a free-market system and critical of a sociologist one. But it also highlighted why he felt science could not alone guide decision-making. In his view, human behaviors were unique and unable to be reproduced. Science was by nature empirical and relied on reproducibility of results to verify facts. Thus, scientific errors were inevitable when science attempted to guide human choices and actions. From his perspective, mistakes in science were common when it came to the field of sociology and praxeology.
Balancing the Known with the Unknown
Knowing what each of us should do in the moment certainly requires a weighing of the facts. The more information we have, the better decision-making ability our will be. But rarely are all the facts available, even when science is at its very best. In these instances, we must balance the known with the unknown. We have to use not only reason and science but also our gut instincts and intuitions. In fact, this type of approach to decision-making is one that supports ethical choices. Ethical conflicts frequently arise, and science can only help us in these situations some of the time. In the vast majority, we must allow our conscience and past experiences guide us in making the right choice. This becomes easier once we appreciate mistakes in science are common and that scientific errors have led us astray previously.