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Tom Scott recently gave a talk at the Royal Institution titled “There Is No Algorithm for Truth.”
It was a good talk, as talks go, but Tom made some bad mistakes, mistakes that a careful science educator like Tom should never have made.
The definition of science, according to Oxford, “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”
This means that science is the process of discovering truth.
Another definition reads, “A systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject.” In other words, the word “science” can also be used to denote current knowledge that we, as a species, have.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary does not even include a definition for science that refers to the process of science. Needless to say, that is a gaping hole in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
As of the publication of this post, the description of the video says, “How does science get communicated in an age of social media?”
What does the Royal Institution, which wrote the description, mean by its use of the word “science” in that sentence? I think they mean our current knowledge.
And Tom seems to mean that definition as well. In the talk, he sometimes interchanges the word “science” with the phrase “the scientific consensus,” denotes not our current knowledge, but what is believed, by the majority of scientists, to be our current knowledge. This makes things even more confusing.
But Tom’s talk is about truth. I know that because it’s in the title. So why does he use the word “science” or the phrase “scientific consensus”? I don’t know if his use of those terms as a synonym for “truth” is intentionally misleading or not, but it is wrong.
Most of you are probably thinking I have gone off the rails. After all, aren’t they the same thing?
No, they are not.
Of course, if the scientific consensus were always right, they would be. But the scientific consensus is just as often wrong as it is right.
Here are some examples: it wasn’t until Einstein told us about
E = mc^2 and
relativity that we knew that Newton’s Laws were subtly wrong; Newton told
us that the Earth is an oblate spheroid, not a sphere; and we did not know
about atom nuclei until the Rutherford model of the atom.
Some may say, “Oh sure, the scientific consensus has been slightly wrong, refining theories over time. But they haven’t been very wrong.”
But what about when the scientific consensus was that the earth was flat? Or that the earth was at the center of the universe? Or that the earth was moving through a medium called aether? Or in the field of chemistry, what about when alchemists thought that lead could be transmuted into gold here on Earth? Or when the atom was thought to be like plum pudding? Or that a substance called phlogiston caused oxidation and combustion? Or that there was a substance called caloric that repelled heat? Or in biology, what about when cell theory didn’t even exist? Or that living things spontaneously generated from non-living matter?
The scientific consensus has not only been wrong, it has sometimes been completely and utterly wrong. “Science” and “scientific consensus” are not the truth; they are what we, as a species, believe to be the truth with our current knowledge.
But that’s not all. In reality, and as claimed by the definition above, the process of science can only help us learn about the natural world and universe. It is completely helpless with things like, e.g., determining if certain people never existed or not. Science, in the branch of archeology, can only provide evidence for their existence. In fact, it can only provide evidence, not proof, for events that have been recorded, so we generally have to rely on records for truth about history.
That means sometimes, we get things wrong, and sometimes, we find new evidence that contradicts what was the scientific consensus in archeology.
And what of things beyond the universe? Can science prove that God doesn’t exist, for example? No, because if He exists, He might live beyond this universe, and science can only prove things about this universe. In fact, science cannot prove or disprove the existence of anything beyond this universe.
All this means that the process of science can only help us find the truth about some things, not all things.
Thus, to use “science” and “scientific consensus” as synonyms for truth is either dishonest (if intentional) or unintentionally misleading (if not). I believe that it was, in fact, unintentional. But as a science educator, Tom should not have used those terms as he did.
That said, Tom has so far shown himself to be as honest as anyone, so I have a hope that if he hears about what I have written, he would be willing to stand corrected.