The other day, I saw someone comment on aether and how such an idea held back scientific progress for 50 or so years. An anti-science argument I'm constantly accosted with revolves around "what happens if they are wrong." The 'uncertainty' in science makes some people nervous or uncomfortable, they want absolute 100% certainty that a theory is true. Whereas scientists are mostly certain some of their theories are true (such as evolution or the big bang), new evidence could overturn these theories and we'd be forced to develop a new one. I wanted to take a moment to address the value of scientific errors.

 

Once upon a time, it was commonly thought that life just sort of spontaneously appeared – this was known as "spontaneous generation." Life, in some cases, could arise from inanimate matter – such as maggots that are 'generated' by rotting flesh. It wasn't until the 17th century when this line of thought came under examination, and it wasn't completely dispelled until the 19th century. Experiments in spontaneous generation pushed us to peer into regions of space invisible to the human eye and ultimately gave rise to germ theory and cell theory.

 

Lets look at aether as another example. Aether (in the 'modern' sense) was an early theory describing how particles could 'make waves.' When on object moves through water, a wave is created; aether was originally thought up as being an invisible medium that particles passed through, creating a wave in the process. The theory didn't set science back, it pushed us to probe deeper into the nature of the 'vacuum' of space. When they experimented, they assumed their equipment wasn't sensitive enough to detect aether and built more sensitive detectors. Ultimately, the theory of relativity proved aether was unnecessary and the theory is now considered obsolete.

 

Image Credit: NASA

Let me take a modern day 'aether' example - gravity waves. Everyone assumes gravity waves exist but we have yet to detect them. Why? We are blaming inadequate equipment. Perhaps one day we'll more or less conclusively decide gravity waves don't exist, was science setback 100 years? No. The idea of gravity waves has pushed us to explore the fabric of reality.

 

Ultimately, science is a self correcting process. There are three types of scientific knowledge. Right or complete knowledge (found mostly in scientific law) - example is the law of evolution. The mechanism for evolution might be wrong (the theory of evolution by natural selection) but the law of evolution is a fact. Then you have incomplete but 'correct' knowledge - such as the theory of relativity, which breaks down at the quantum level or under extreme distortions of spacetime. Lastly, there is incorrect 'knowledge' - stuff that is simply wrong (aether, geocentricism, ect). You can't do science without getting some stuff wrong. You run experiments and when you find those errors, you fix it and move on. Science advances. (See Hypothesis, Theory, or Law for more information)

 

This is why we constantly test our theories. Those theories and hypotheses of how the natural world works also cause us to probe deeper into the nature of this wonderful universe. Sometimes, we find hidden nuggets of truth – such as when Einstein's famous equation E=mc^2 and the discovery of quantum tunneling allowed us to understand, for the first time in human history, how the stars are powered. Even when the hypothesis is wrong, investigating it and running experiments allow us to uncover truth about our world – such as when the infamous double split experiment unified the "are they particles or waves" debate by conclusively proving subatomic particles are both particle and wave.

 

The only times science is 'held back' is in the presence of scientific oppression, when a culture for social or political reasons actively halts the progress of science for whatever reason. Anti intellectualism can be seen in the history of most major cultures on Earth – as an American, you can see this anti intellectual thinking in the "it's not cool to be smart" classrooms of our schools. Sometimes, this train of thought was taken to another level, such as the 1971 massacre of all Bengali intellectuals (something that nation is still recovering from today). Even social oppression inhibits the progress of science, as wonderfully summarized by Bill Gates. While speaking in front of a segregated audience in Saudi Arabia, one of the audience members asked if it was realistic for Saudi Arabia to be one of the top ten countries in the world in technology by 2010; Gate's simply responded, "Well, if you're not fully utilizing half of the talent in the country you're not going to get close to the top ten."

 

Science making genuine errors, and correcting those errors, is part of scientific progress. Political or social efforts to stall science or oppress a group of people are where science starts to stall and be held back – but that isn't science's fault.

 


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