IWR Summary – The Role of Uncertainty and Doubt in Science

These are some links that I gathered as a result of a discussion on science.   It is my position that scientific results and knowledge, which are dependent on experiment, do not represent absolute proofs as in mathematics for example.   Science is probabilistic and tells us what is more or less likely to be true in Nature.  This is what separates science from religion and philosophy, where absolutes are not subject to scientific falsification.  It is important to remember that scientists are also human beings and are subject to the biases of history, bureaucracy and culture as Thomas Kuhn eloquently pointed out in "Structure of Scientific Revolutions".

ncertainty in science also applies to our everyday world, which in effect means that nothing is real in any absolute sort of way. Our facts and knowledge of the natural world should always be be taken with a skeptical grain salt.  That aside, however, I will always place my bets on the laws and theories of science over philosophy or religion.  I think Bertrand Russell said it best:

"Science is what you know, philosophy is what you don’t know."


Richard Feynman: What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character

The Role of Doubt in Science

The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darned sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain


Richard Feynman on Uncertainty

In the first of his lectures, entitled "The Uncertainty of Science," Feynman postulates that uncertainty is likely a good thing, because if you know the answer, or think you do, then you will no longer seek further knowledge about that particular subject. He questions the value of science: "I think a power to do something is of value. Whether the result is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how it is used, but the power is a value. Once in Hawaii I was taken to see a Buddhist temple. In the temple a man said, ‘I am going to tell you something that you will never forget.’ And then he said, ‘To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.’"


Stephen Hawking: Does God Play Dice?

"Many scientists are like Einstein, in that they have a deep emotional attachment to determinism. Unlike Einstein, they have accepted the reduction in our ability to predict, that quantum theory brought about. But that was far enough. They didn’t like the further reduction, which black holes seemed to imply. They have therefore claimed that information is not really lost down black holes. But they have not managed to find any mechanism that would return the information. It is just a pious hope that the universe is deterministic, in the way that Laplace thought. I feel these scientists have not learnt the lesson of history. The universe does not behave according to our pre-conceived ideas. It continues to surprise us."


McComas, William, "Ten myths of science: Reexamining what we think we know….," Vol. 96, School Science & Mathematics, 01-01-1996, pp 10.


Myth 5: Science and its Methods Provide Absolute Proof

The general success of the scientific endeavor suggests that its products must be valid. However, a hallmark of scientific knowledge is that it is subject to revision when new information is presented. Tentativeness is one of the points that differentiates science from other forms of knowledge. Accumulated evidence can provide support, validation and substantiation for a law or theory, but will never prove those laws and theories to be true. This idea has been addressed by Homer and Rubba (1978) and Lopnshinsky (1993).

The problem of induction argues against proof in science, but there is another element of this myth worth exploring. In actuality, the only truly conclusive knowledge produced by science results when a notion is falsified. What this means is that no matter what scientific idea is considered, once evidence begins to accumulate, at least we know that the notion is untrue. Consider the example of the white swans discussed earlier. One could search the world and see only white swans, and arrive at the generalization that "all swans are white. " However, the discovery of one black swan has the potential to overturn, or at least result in modifications of, this proposed law of nature. However, whether scientists routinely try to falsify their notions and how much contrary evidence it takes for a scientist’s mind to change are issues worth exploring.


What Is Science?

Science is a way of understanding the world, not a mountain of facts. Before anyone can truly understand scientific information, they must know how science works. Science does not prove anything absolutely — all scientific ideas are open to revision in the light of new evidence. The process of science, therefore, involves making educated guesses (hypotheses) that are then rigorously and repeatedly tested. For a better understanding of the nature and process of science, check out these links, books, and articles.


hat is meant by scientific evidences and scientific proof? In truth, science can never establish "truth" or "fact" in the sense that a scientific statement can be made that is formally beyond question. All scientific statements and concepts are open to reevaluation as new data is acquired and novel technologies emerge. "Proof," then, is solely the realm of logic and mathematics. That said, we often hear "proof" mentioned in a scientific context, and there is a sense in which it denotes "strongly supported by scientific means." Even though one may hear "proof" used like this, it is a careless and inaccurate handling of the term. Consequently, this is the last time you will read the terms "proof" or "prove" in this essay.


The following definition of science was agreed upon by 72 Nobel laureates. (From the Amicus Curiae presented in the US Supreme Court Case of Edwards vs Agullard, 1986)

"Science is devoted to formulating and testing naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena. It is a process for systematically collecting and recording data about the physical world, then categorizing and studying the collected data in an effort to infer the principles of nature that best explain the observed phenomena."

The essential characteristics of science are:

It is guided by natural law.

It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law.

It is testable against the empirical world.

Its conclusions are tentative (are not necessarily the final word)

It is falsifiable (Ruse, from Montagu, pg. 340)


What is Science? 

Science is a way of thinking, asking questions, and combining observation with knowledge to understand the physical Universe.

Science is ongoing, we never stop questioning our current scientific knowledge, particularly in light of "new" observations. Every law, theory, or hypothesis in science is subject to change if new observations show a flaw in the ideas or concepts involved.

Carl Sagan lists three essential elements in scientific studies:

Experiment (or observation) Willingness to challenge dogma An openness to see the Universe as it really is Underlying all science is the fundamental assumption that we can know the Universe.



A. Is there proof in science?

1. In the sense that the word proof is used in mathematics and philosophy, nothing is ever proven in science. There is always some uncertainty about the actual value of results obtained from some experiment or their interpretation.

2. The more times an observation is repeated and the greater number of different observations and theories that it ties into and agrees with, the more confident we are about how well we actually understand something.

3. However, in the strictest sense, we never arrive at "proof"; we simply arrive at a very high degree of probability that we understand something. Thus, it is important that you shift your frame of reference from one of proof and certainty of knowledge and interpretation of facts to one that is PROBABILISTIC in nature, where our confidence in whether or not we understand something properly is not and never can be absolute. Thus, you are well advised to remove the word "proof" from your vocabulary as far as science is concerned.

This should be no big surprise — truth and proof in our own lives are generally probabilistic in nature. In fact, it is only in philosophy and mathematics where the criteria are rules of logic where the idea of proof, in its purest sense, ever has absolute meaning.


Modern science has its limitations:

1. Observations are confined to the biological limits of our senses, even with technological enhancement.

2. The mental processing of our sensory information is unconsciously influenced by previous experiences, which may result in inaccurate or biased perceptions of the world.

3. It is impossible to know if we have observed every possible aspect of a phenomenon, have thought of every possible alternative explanation, or controlled for every possible variable.

4. Scientific knowledge is necessarily contingent knowledge rather than absolute knowledge: –a. Scientific knowledge is based only on the available evidence which must be assessed and (and is therefore subject to more than one possible interpretation), not on indisputable "proof". –b. The history of science is filled with numerous examples of scientific knowledge changing over time.

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