Every year, The web magazine, Edge, asks leading scientists, philosophers, artists, and others to submit a response to a “big” question that is usually visionary or out-of-the-box. This year, the question was: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”. There have been many great responses, a few of which were summarized in a recent Guardian article that I highly recommend. Not all of the answers to the question were mentioned, but the few that were are outstanding and include: appreciating uncertainty, accepting failure, and this gem:

Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Centre for Bits and Atoms wants everyone to know that “truth” is just a model. “The most common misunderstanding about science is that scientists seek and find truth. They don’t – they make and test models,” he said.

“Building models is very different from proclaiming truths. It’s a never-ending process of discovery and refinement, not a war to win or destination to reach. Uncertainty is intrinsic to the process of finding out what you don’t know, not a weakness to avoid. Bugs are features – violations of expectations are opportunities to refine them. And decisions are made by evaluating what works better, not by invoking received wisdom.”

This is a very interesting answer, and one that you might expect from a philosopher of science, not a practicing scientist. And I love it.

Many with an agenda might do their best to misrepresent what Gershenfeld is saying, and I can envision a Christian fundamentalist or three that would use these words out of context. But I think the answer is outstanding and hits on the reality of scientific exploration, at least for me whose training is in biology.

What I think Gershenfeld is getting at, and I run the risk of misinterpreting as well since his was a two paragraph description in the article, is a philosophy of science known as critical realism. Critical realism (I subscribe to John Polkinghorne’s interpretation) says that there are limits to what we can actually know or describe about the world around us. Not so much in the questions that can be asked but in the precise detail and lowest level of explanation that we can achieve. That being said, critical realism posits that observations and explanations do, in fact, correspond to reality and that they’re not just human constructs. Therefore, we can know but we know that we cannot know everything that there is to know, you know?

The resulting “truth” of science then is very different from the “revealed” truth of religion and you can see why many in the field of science have a difficulty accepting and engaging positively with revelation. Scientists construct hypotheses and models to explain their observations and do their best to test them. And this is not only true about scientific data, but even the scientific method itself. It was “created” too!

Again, this does not mean that science is flawed in some way or that religious truth is “better” than scientific truth.  It’s just the way it is.  The beauty of science is that people anywhere can test the models giving way to peer review and either revision or confirmation of the model.  There are limits to science for sure but the potential for reproducibility and the consistently seen self-correcting nature of science is what makes it such a great and successful method of inquiry.

This post coincides very well with an introductory lecture that I gave today for a course that I teach called “Critical thinking in biology” (slides here if interested). In this class, students practice the art of critical thinking by analyzing, discussing, and critiquing primary research articles and by writing a research grant proposal. It’s a course designed to help students transition from college to graduate school and is a blast to teach. Today we talked about critical thinking, the scientific method, and science in practice. It always comes as a bit of a surprise to students that there are limitations in science, that hypotheses are easy to generate but designing appropriate experiments often very difficult, that scientists have biases, yet science works so well. This is due to the nature of much of undergraduate science education but also to how science is represented by leading scientists and the media.

That’s what makes this Guardian article and organizations like Edge and its  thinker-contributers such a joy to read.  More, please.