Scientists Think They Know Everything

Occasionally, I hear a person say something like, “Scientists think they know everything.” I am always slightly off-put by these statements, because I think it’s the furthest thing from the truth. In many ways, ignorance is the motivation for scientific thought and investigation. Some scientists even believe the primary goal of a scientist is to remain forever uncertain. Whenever I hear people talking about “know-it-all” scientists, I think about a lot of things—ego, responsibility, indeterminacy, magic wells. Mostly, I think of this particularly amusing (somewhat controversial) TED talk by Dr. Stuart Firestein:

Firestein talks about the nature of science, knowledge, and even formal education. (And magic wells, which is likely my favorite part of the talk and probably also indicative of my reverence for Murakami.) Essentially, Firestein’s argument boils down to the idea that there is progress in “less pejorative. . . thoroughly conscious ignorance.” At the same time, I don’t think Firestein is saying that all approaches to knowledge are equal. He emphasizes the importance of Kant’s “question propagation” in how he talks about turning molecules into perceptions or even the oddities of robotics. Firestein isn’t dismissing the validity of science. He is simply expressing that scientific knowledge isn’t complete or perfect.

“There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.” ―Jacob Bronowski

Science that expresses an absolute knowledge becomes dogma. Dogmatic science, to me, isn’t science.

If you want to talk about uncertainty and how we grapple with it as a collective people, I can roll with Alan Watts and primary consciousness and the age of anxiety. Or we can move to John Keats and meander with negative capability. Then, we can play a hand of cards with Voltaire. This grappling is expressed in varying areas of culture from philosophy to literature to film. For me, it’s ludicrous to think that uncertainty theory exists only outside of science and in the pursuit of artist presence. I cannot help but wonder if this concept of factual knowledge and ego has trickled down from the type of “bulimic education” that Firestein mentions in his lecture, but maybe I will propagate a bit more on that after a cup of coffee, or several.

10 comments

  1. D. Eaton · September 20, 2014

    Shared on facebook.

  2. almondcoffeed · September 20, 2014

    I’ve yet to hear a ted talk that wasn’t engaging.

    • Sarah Key · September 21, 2014

      I am a big fan of TED talks in general, but I have certainly turned away from a few of them mid-way through the lecture. Next time you find one that you particularly enjoy, feel free to shoot it my way. I love receiving shared podcasts/presentations from friends.

  3. Corvin · September 21, 2014

    Being a science major, I get to see these sorts of actions on a regular basis. With my particular discipline being psychology, aka the “soft science”, there is quite a bit of room for negotiation. The most prevalent theories get overhauled or replaced every few years, and whenever neurobiology discovers something new about the amazing human brain, the cards get shuffled even faster. Thanks for getting my brain up and mobile this morning, pretty lady!

  4. Kay Brewin · September 21, 2014

    Your thoughts remind me of the Sapelo draped in gray that knew too much with time and never enough to save itself.

  5. Roadkill Spatula · September 23, 2014

    “There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.” ―Jacob Bronowski

    Dude sounds absolutely certain of this.

    • Sarah Key · September 24, 2014

      Ha, no kidding! That is the forever persistent Catch-22 of talking about absolute vs. relative truth.

      • Roadkill Spatula · September 25, 2014

        It shows up all over the place. There is no complete knowledge, perhaps, but there are things we can know that are true.

  6. Angolia! · September 30, 2014

    “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

    #dancingintherain

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