Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

No such thing as “settled science”

Posted by sanityinjection on September 9, 2009

How often have you heard the phrases “settled science” or “scientific fact”? They come up a lot in reference to issues like climate change, evolution, and abortion. Always the intention is to show that the currently prevailing scientific theory is correct beyond any doubt, and that anyone who suggests a contrary idea must be a crackpot.

This is contrary to the very nature of science. The success of science as a way of explaining the world around us is precisely due to science’s ability to revise theories in accordance with new evidence. Just as Einstein’s relativity replaced Newtonian physics, new discoveries continue to challenge our existing theories about life, the universe, and everything. Those who arrogantly insist on the infallibility of any scientific theory such as global warming or evolution are doomed to ultimate embarrassment when they turn out to be wrong.

A wonderful example of this comes to us from the science page of the Independent. Hominid skulls found in the Georgian village of Dmanisi are the oldest ever found outside of Africa, and they are challenging the long-held view that humans must have arisen in Africa and spread from there to Eurasia and other continents. This theory was, until recently, virtually universally accepted as fact. To suggest that one of the stages of human development (Homo erectus) evolved in Eurasia, as these fossils seem to suggest, would have been regarded as batty: 

“The question is whether Homo erectus originated in Africa or Eurasia, and if in Eurasia, did we have vice-versa migration? This idea looked very stupid a few years ago, but today it seems not so stupid.”

Ultimately, it may or may not be shown that human ancestors went “back to Africa”. It has little impact for the average person today either way. The point though, is that the out-of-Africa theory is far older, more venerable, and had more evidence behind it than the theory of global warming does. If the former can be called into question by new evidence, the latter certainly can. So the next time that someone tells you global warming is “settled science”, feel free to treat the comment with the disdain it deserves.

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6 Responses to “No such thing as “settled science””

  1. Ms. D said

    Any “scientist” who says that something that can’t be observed, measured or tested is a fact is NOT a scientist and can’t be trusted!! What about the ‘missing link’? There can’t be anything missing in a fact, so that right there shoves evolution back into the “theory” category.

  2. Jess Chapman said

    Settled science:

    1. That a single atom of nitrogen has seven protons in its nucleus.
    2. That the Earth revolves around the sun.
    3. That there is no 100% consensus on global warming or even evolution, as scientists will gladly tell you (though the latter has more evidence behind it than any other theories of human existence).

    • Jess – It’s true that there is a lot of evidence to support your first two propositions, and no counter-theory with significant evidence exists. So in that sense, you’re correct. There is a great deal of value in proceeding on the assumption that those are correct and no value in doing otherwise. But something could still be discovered that could wipe out those theories. For example, what if the earth really revolves around the sun’s “invisible twin” made of dark matter? And what if someday we discover nitrogen atoms with uncombined quarks in their nucleus instead of protons, just as we have discovered nitrogen isotopes with differing numbers of neutrons?

  3. Ms. D said

    I beg to differ. I know many a scientist that will gladly tell you both evolution and global warming are both facts. Although I would say that the current global warming theory at least has the potential to be more than theory (and past warming and cooling trends have been observed), whereas evolution never will. There are many more theories with far more evidence than either of those two. The problem with evolutionary “evidence” is that it is based on things which themselves cannot be proven, such as carbon dating and fossils. Scientists date fossils based on the geological layers in which they are found, then they date the geological layers based on the fossils that are found there. Leave it to any good scientist to practice circular reasoning to make a point that they support. 🙂

  4. Ms. D said

    In addition, many people use “microevolution” (which can observed) to present “macroevolution” (which can’t) as fact.

  5. Ms. D said

    I disagree. I think there is a great deal of value in not proceeding on assumptions. I think when we do that, proceed on assumption, slowly those assumptions are presented as facts (see any textbook) and that’s when real error occurs. If we don’t base such profound theories on assumptions, we leave open the option that other possibilities exist, and funding and support can follow. It’s when we get so immersed in the theory and we plow forward, trying to prove it more and more and more, and close out other options, do we make fools of ourselves when other evidence is found.

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