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.