The Limitations of Science: Everything and Nothing

As your humble science columnist, I have spent the past
two-plus years writing about the successes of Science and the
empirical method. These triumphs have helped answer difficult questions about our past,
present and future.

Throughout the thousands of words I’ve written in this
space, which I’ve been both lucky and grateful to occupy, my tone has carried
an underlying appreciation for the incredible things that Science can do, from wirelessly connecting the
brains of animals across the world, to building a supercomputer smarter than a
doctor, to understanding why we humans engage in laughter. But in my final TSL column, I
think it is important I turn my attention to a slightly more sobering topic:
what Science cannot do.

There are some obvious realms that are immune to the
scrutiny of the scientific method. Science—and by capital S “Science,” I mean
the collective community of investigators and institutions across the world who
are, every single day, using systematic experimentation to ask and answer questions
about the physical world. 

Science cannot make ethical, moral or policy
judgments. It can’t say what the “best” diet is, only what diet seems to lead
to the lowest risk of heart disease (hint: it ain’t Paleo).

Furthermore, since Science seeks to answer questions about
the physical world, it cannot pass judgment on paranormal, supernatural or fundamentally
non-physical entities or occurrences. If you believe in ghosts or a god, that’s
great; just don’t expect Science to confirm or deny your claims.

Beyond the questions Science is not permitted to ask, there
are important limitations on the practice of Science. One of the greatest such
limits is the fact that Science, a powerful method of inquiry in its pure
Platonic form, is performed by humans—fallible, arrogant and ultimately
inadequate humans.

Though good Science
requires one to constantly challenge previously made claims, humans often hang onto pet theories—which may be the theories that grab the grants, make the
headlines or pay the bills—with decidedly unscientific passion. The
inevitable humanity of Science is why good, unorthodox theories are often
vehemently rejected at first, their proponents scorned for suggesting solutions
that disrupt the current dogma. 

For example, the guy who discovered that having
doctors wash their hands led to less mortality among mothers who had just given
childbirth was universally disparaged, leading to his mental breakdown and death
in an insane asylum.

This resistance to change is a product of both the humans
and institutions that act as the gatekeepers of Science. Massive research
institutions allow certain scientists, but not others, to procure funding.
Journals steeped in history give certain scientists, but not others, a platform
to broadcast their findings and their opinions about how the world
works.

On one hand, these institutions keep the world of Science
from being muddled by pseudo-science. On the other hand, institutions are
conservative, reticent to change and ultimately intent on maintaining the
status quo. 

But perhaps the greatest limit on good Science is a
fundamental aspect of the universe itself: time. Humanity is situated at an
unprecedented crossroads. 

Through scientific investigation and technological
advancement, billions across the globe maintain lifestyles that were unfathomable a
century ago. In the past 20 years, one billion people have been lifted out of
extreme poverty (living on less than $1.25 a day). This trend toward prosperity
is occurring at an accelerating rate: three to five billion people are poised to connect to the Internet, and thus the
global economy, in the next five
years.

This progress has come at a cost. Once-plentiful resources
are scarce. Once-pristine environments are polluted. Once-pastoral landscapes
are overpopulated. 

The incredible speed of our global transformation may be its
downfall, a point that I find is often missed when hearing talk of the future.
In the secular humanist discourse of modern progressives, Science is often
viewed as the miraculous remedy to all of our self-generated woes. Future-oriented
optimists fail to grasp that the world is advancing at a sprint, while good
Science moves at a crawl, one slow step at a time.

It is often said that every scientific discovery produces
even more questions. Similarly, every scientific solution tends to produce more
problems. 

We may solve world hunger with genetically modified organisms, but
we’ll have to figure out how to deal with the possible health consequences of
widespread GMO usage. We may insulate ourselves from drought by desalinating
ocean water, but we must make peace with the environmental damage we create. 

It
is all a matter of time: Can the Science outstrip the setbacks? Or better yet,
can we give Science the time to find sustainable solutions?

With all these limits in mind, it must be acknowledged that
Science has a terrific track record. It has worked miracles time and time
again. 

In some ways, those miracles were the low-hanging fruit, like figuring
out that when doctors wash their hands, their patients don’t get sick as often.
The miracles will be harder and harder to come by in the future. They’ll take
even more effort from even more ingenious people.

Now, more than ever, we must educate great thinkers and
fund great science. We must accept that we cannot stumble backwards into
the future, relying on old ideas to carry us across a rapidly-changing
landscape. Most importantly, though, we must recognize that even the best Science
has its limits: conservatism, time and human nature are all impediments to
progress. These lessons are more crucial now than ever. After all, the future
isn’t now—it was yesterday.

Warren Szewczyk PO ‘15 is hoping to spend the next couple years researching schizophrenia and continuing to write about science. If you are reading this, you hopefully read the entire preceding column, so thanks for that.

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