Arrogant gods of certainty or subtle sophistication?


If you’re reading this, you’re probably a scientist. Would you label yourself, then, an “arrogant god of certainty”? Nature Physics, in its December Editorial (5, 851; 2009) takes issue with “the continued misperception of science”, in this case by A. N. Wilson in The Daily Mail newspaper, in a article which attracted 462 comments from readers. From the Nature Physics Editorial: "According to Wilson, “What scientists are saying basically is that they will brook no contradiction”; “science rules” and needs “to distort and control the brains of men and women who might otherwise think for themselves.” Any scientist surely struggles to recognize this description. What must be appreciated, by politicians and populace alike, is that there can be certainty in science, but there can also be contradiction. There are issues on which there is scientific consensus, there are others on which there is not. To pick on less emotive issues than the examples offered by Wilson, think of how tried and tested the standard model of particle physics is (even if in need of some extension), and yet how controversial the mechanism of high-temperature superconductivity remains.

It is a subtle, sophisticated picture, and men and women do need to think about it for themselves. It is vital to appreciate what it means to know something scientifically, and what it means to not know; what science can say, and what it can’t. We don’t claim that science is all. That would be arrogant. But we are certain that it cannot be ignored."


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