Science isn’t settled

We must not ever, ever, ever stop searching for errors in our theories, even our best ones: the ones that appear settled, which we can’t presently imagine being superseded.

— author Al Pittampalli

This is the expression of a healthy understanding of science. No number of observations are capable of proving a theory true if the very next observation could always render it false.

The possibility that the next observation changes everything is exactly what science holds. The quote above makes reference to a seemingly minority perspective in the scientific world… that science doesn’t settle.

It’s an uncomfortable postulation for many. Scientists are inspired by the hunt for knowledge, for arriving at conclusions certain to be true. Finding truths would mean progress, things on which a foundation, if not an empire, could be built.

But science herself doesn’t settle. Science measures and counts. Science observes. Bottom line: if science settles, she dies. With settling there is an invitation to stop observing. And this ceases to be scientific. Evolution and development don’t stop. Nature doesn’t stop, why should science?

Today’s answer is not certain to be tomorrow’s. For instance, the viewpoint of the observer can open new worlds. If the observer makes a shift and is capable of approaching the phenomena in a different way, things can be revealed in a different light. Consider how the viewpoint of quantum physics brought a disruption of so many existing foundational principles, but don’t make the mistake that quantum physics brings us to a destination. And who’s to say the phenomena themselves can’t change? Science would love to offer her services to watch for this.

Science is dispassionately awaiting the next data point.

If you show me a scientist who tells you that science is settled, I’ll show you a person denying the possibility that they could be mistaken. I’ll show you a person denying the limited nature of the human perspective. I’ll probably show you someone trying to sell you something.

Reproducibility crisis

Medical science is notorious for being influenced by the marketplace in which it attempts to position itself. Critics claim “what we see in the published literature is a highly curated version of what’s actually happened.”

What if there was an effort to repeat the findings reported in landmark medical studies? If science works the way we think it should there should be a high rate of reproducibility. What do you imagine would happen?

Well, that effort exists, and science is facing a “reproducibility crisis” where more than two-thirds of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce other scientist’s experiments. This is not new information.

In 2015 a large group of researchers set out to repeat 100 experiments published by leading psychology journals to see how often they would get the same results.

The answer was less than half the time.

Furthermore, researchers with the Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology aimed to replicate almost 200 experiments from over 50 top cancer papers published from 2010 to 2012. Only a quarter of those experiments were able to be reproduced, the team reported in two papers published December 2021.

What’s going on here?

The bottom line is we as a human race have not arrived anywhere to be able to claim we have figured out much of anything. As a young doctor in training I was struck by just how often there aren’t good answers to important questions. Medicine is sure about its accepted approach, but that’s relevant only to current scientific observations, which are often curated and must be considered… far from settled.

Much, maybe all, of what we know will be at least partially corrected in time. Almost nothing lasts the test of time in science. It’s been said every 100 years nearly all accepted scientific theory is over turned.

The beauty is we don’t need settled science on which to build our foundation.

Accepted answers aren’t what matter because answers don’t have meaning outside of their very particular and limited circumstance. Living with the question invites the continual freshness of today’s information to arrive.

A science which deemphasizes settled conclusions will carry us much further.

When faced with questions we’re right to consider our best explanation, but as Pitampalli says we are wrong “to anoint it as ‘true’ or even ‘probably true,’ nor do we claim it as ‘justified’ in any sense.”

Anything less would threaten to bring us into the realm of crippling hubris and block important insight which is born each day and every second.

Here’s to living with questions into the future and refusing to settle.