How Exact Is Science?


We have been disappointed so many times by the inaccurate forecasts of weather, earthquake, medical cures, and stock prices using scientific methods that we should ask the question how exact is science. I think science is not absolutely exact, but is as exact as the scientists can achieve for practical purpose. What do I mean?

What is science anyway? Science is a collection of human discoveries that have been accumulated through the years since we began to wonder about what’s happening in the world. In what medium do we learn science? We learn science through languages just like any other field. In addition, we use mathematics as a unique language to interpret science.

Mathematics is totally based on human conception and definition in an isolated framework where we make things exact and consistent (e.g. 3+5=8). When we employ mathematics to interpret science, we get exact and consistent results. However, that does not mean that science should necessarily follow mathematics. Why? We should be able to separate the mathematical language from the physical laws that constitute science. Humans invent the language but not the physical world, which is totally independent of what we think. That is why science appears to be inexact when it does not behave according to our wish of exactness built into the language of mathematics. Albert Einstein once said, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”

A few examples will make it clear:

It is almost impossible to accurately forecast an earthquake. Why? It is true that we don’t know earthquakes well enough. Even if we do, we want a magnitude number and a probable date in forecasting using statistical methods. Well, the earth behaves in a unique way as it wants to. Why should it obey the statistical methods invented by humans? For practical purpose, we should accept the forecast as a good one if it comes close enough. The same is true when we try to forecast weather conditions.

In medicine, we have seen so many times that a certain drug or foodstuff can cure a certain ailment, only to find that they are not as effective as claimed several years later. The reason is not the inaccuracy of medical science. In fact, we don’t know enough about the things around us but we think that we do.

Outside of science, it is even more treacherous trying to predict what will happen. Take the stock market as an example. The movements of stocks are not governed by physical laws. They are the combined results of business conditions, optimism, fear, and human manipulation, none of which obeys the rules of statistics invented by humans in an isolated framework. So you should not be surprised by the inaccuracy of the so-called scientific prediction of the stock market.

You’ve probably heard about Newtonian Physics that is learned in high school. It’s a discipline that covers all the physical laws that apply to ordinary objects, including the laws of gravity, motion, aerodynamics, etc. However, when an object has an atomic size or smaller, Newtonian Physics breaks down. Quantum Mechanics takes over that sees an object as behaving like a wave, too. This shows the complexity of the physical world where things behave differently beyond certain boundaries.

So what is my point? My point is that the world we live in is incredibly complex. Its mysteries remain to be discovered bit by bit as a never-ending enterprise. Something we have found as true may not hold in the future, because new discoveries tend to overthrow the old truths, especially in science. We can never know it all except to accumulate and refine our knowledge as time goes by. We stop to progress if we just complain about the inexactness of our discoveries, and fail to refine them and accept new ones that come along everyday.

(January 2011)

 

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One Response to How Exact Is Science?

  1. Sup. Just want to actually write a swift note and inform you you that I undoubtedly approve with your specific post. Absolutely spot on.

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