“Science Was Wrong Before!”

Science was wrong before!

A common complaint by various pseudoscience activists and movements is that “science was wrong before”. They argue that scientists and scientific results cannot be trusted and use a range of different tactics and tropes to make their case.

There are many ways to refute this claim: science does not need to be perfect, it is worse to be wrong now, science is probably not mistaken on core issues and the reason we know that people in the past were wrong about things is science itself. Moreover, science does not change arbitrarily, but updates and improves. Many simpler models, including Newtonian mechanics, is still highly accurate and useful today.

Many of the supposed historical claims made by the “science was wrong before” crowd are not even accurately explained and several of them are much more complicated than they first appear. They rarely provides support for the “science was wrong before” narrative. Science has many fields and methods, so it does not make sense to make wild generalizations across disciplines and insist that an error in the past in one area means that some completely different areas are wrong today. For another response to common complaints about science, see “Politics?! I Thought This Was About Science!”.

It is worse to be wrong now

It is true that science has been wrong in the past, but it is worse to be wrong now. Typically, pseudoscience activists will drag up completely unrelated examples that do not have any direct relevance to the topic currently being discussed. This is a distraction, because the thing that should be discussed is really the scientific evidence against the pseudoscience being discussed.

The point is to figure out if the claims being made is supported by evidence or not. Merely stating that science was wrong at some point in the past has nothing to do with the question of whether the mainstream scientific position is based on evidence right now.

Or to put it more briefly: is science wrong now?

Science is probably not wrong on broad issues.

For some very broad questions, science is probably approximately correct on most things. The evidence for things like evolution or the failure of homeopathy is enormous. The evidence also independently converges from many different sources, methods and areas. While some details might be revised in the future, it is unlikely to be revised in major ways. The evidence is simply too plentiful and too strong.

To drive this point home, it is important to distinguish scientific models from facts and observations. Even if some particular model turns out to be flawed, the basic observations that have been repeatedly demonstrated will not be disproved. Even if we discover some new model for quantum gravity, this would not disprove the basic observation that things fall to the ground when you drop them.

The reason we know science was wrong in the past is science

Science was wrong in the past. How do we know? Because better, more robust and more evidence-based science disproved it. It is not like religious extremism, quackery or magic has replaced science. There are virtually no well-documented historical cases where mainstream science had one position and paranormal movements had another and the paranormal hypothesis won out on the evidence.

Why bet on the weakest horse when the strongest horse has virtually always won? Why invest in pseudoscientific movements and claims that have more or less always been shown to be scams, fakes or other forms of nonsense?

Science does not need to be perfect to be reasonable

Dismissing an entire scientific field or a well-tested medical product by arguing that “science was wrong before” assumes that science has to be perfect. If it is not perfect, it supposedly cannot be trusted. But this is an extreme and unreasonable demand.

After all, no one demands that conspiracy theories, religions, or political ideologies have to be perfect to be believed. Hardly anyone claim that they refuse to get into a car or onto a bicycle unless the vehicle has been shown to be unfailingly perfect. Hardly anyone refuses to cross the street unless it can be guaranteed to 100% that there is no risk. Same goes with drinking a beverage or eating food.

Science does not need to be prefect to be trusted. It is enough that it is highly effective, reliable and reasonable. With know with a high degree of certainty that vaccines work and that the earth is not flat. These conclusions do not change because scientists sometimes makes errors. By that logic, you could not rely on anything (not even yourself) and probably be too afraid to do anything. It is theoretically and practically a non-starter.

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Science updates and improves, not changes arbitrarily

Science is not “always changing its mind”. While what is considered well-supported mainstream science can change over time, this change is not random or arbitrarily. Instead, science updates and improves to fit the evidence. It grows our understanding of the world and allows us to help humanity. This is a great strength, not a weakness.

On the contrary, it is a great weakness to keep holding false beliefs about the world simply because a movement has held those beliefs for a very long time. Setting aside false beliefs about the world in favor of the evidence is much, much better than ignoring evidence and refusing to give up false beliefs about the world.

Many simpler models are still relevant and useful today

In popular culture, it is commonly held that Einstein refuted Newton and that therefore, Newtonian mechanics is wrong. While it is true that Newtonian mechanics is just an approximation to reality, it is a highly accurate one in areas that humans commonly find themselves in. For instance, it is Newtonian mechanics and related areas that are used when building cars, bridges and even the earliest space shuttles. We landed on the moon with Newtonian mechanics. General relativity only adds small differences in the calculations that turn out not to matter in practice.

More crucially, the predictions made by general relativity (or any new scientific model) has to make the same predictions as older models in areas where they both apply. In other words, there has to be some degree of correspondence between new and older models in science. For instance, quantum mechanics converge on classical physics as the level of scale being analyzed grows.

Sociological objections to science hit anti-science even harder

Scientists are humans. This means that they sometimes make errors, buy into dangerous ideologies, succumb to political pressure or become corrupted by money.

This is not something that is specific to science, but to a great many areas, simply because it involves humans that are by their very nature imperfect. This kind of sophisticated sociological criticism of science has some merits, but self-detonate when taken too far.

This is because science has many self-correcting mechanisms and norms that are designed to prevent and combat many of these problems. On the contrary, this is not as prominent when it comes to anti-science movements or sophisticated sociologists. Thus, these contrarian movements are even more vulnerable to error and corruption.

In essence, overreliance on sophisticated sociological arguments proves too much. They throw out the baby with the bath water. The surgery is successful, but the patient died. More crucially, if their basic argument was true, it would also automatically refute their own positions and movements.

In other words, extreme versions taken by some “science was wrong before” activists are fundamentally self-contradictory positions to take.

Many “science was wrong before” examples are flawed

Galileo was not suppressed by the scientific establishment, but by the Catholic Church. This was not because he proposed a scientific model with the sun at the center and the earth revolving around it. Instead, it was largely a personal conflict with the Pope about religion.

There was no massive amount of evidence that claimed that asbestos or tobacco was safe. In fact, asbestos and tobacco corporations hid evidence that showed that it was dangerous. Most studies showed that smoking was harmful (and still is).

Scientists did not use to think that the earth was flat. In fact, scientists, natural philosophers and other learned intellectuals have known that the earth was not flat since the ancient Greeks. Aristotle put forward three arguments against the notion that the earth was flat. First, the shadow of the earth on the moon during lunar eclipse. Second, the fact that the top of the ship goes over the horizon later than the bottom of the ship. Third and finally, that the visible stars and constellations differed depending on how far north or south you are on the earth. Eratosthenes even measured an approximate circumference of the earth by measuring the angle of the sun at two different places and calculate angles and distances. He was surprisingly accurate.

There was no global cooling consensus in the 1970s. Peterson, Connolley and Fleck (2008) carried out a systematic analysis of all climate papers published between 1965 to 1979 and found that 7 out of 71 (~10%) papers predicted cooling, 20 out of 71 (~30%) were neutral and 44 out of 71 (~60%) predicted warming.

In other words, there was no consensus or even strong support for the notion of global cooling in the 1970s. On the contrary, the majority of papers predicted warming. Today, the consensus is even more overwhelming, with about 90-100% of papers, abstracts and/or expert scientists support it.

In sum, many of the historical examples trotted out by the “science was wrong before” crowd is historically inaccurate in several different ways.

Science has many fields and methods

Science is not some kind of singular thing, but a collection of many different fields, methods and areas of the world. Thus, it is not a valid argument to attack e. g. evolution by saying that science has wrong in the past on a completely different question in a completely different field that used radically different methods.

It just does not compare, no matter what convoluted rationalizations that the “science was wrong before” crowd puts forward. They cannot bring in errors in some wholly unrelated field and use that to undermine the massive amount of evidence that currently exists for e. g. vaccines.

Conclusion

“Science was wrong before” is a terrible argument.

It is surely worse to be wrong right now than at some distant point in the past. Because of the massive amount of scientific evidence supporting core scientific models, it is unlikely that they will be completely disproved in the future. In fact, the very reason that we know that science was wrong in the past is because current science shows this. In their attacks on science, critics are implicitly assuming the validity of the very thing they attack. Science does not have to be perfect in order to be reliable and useful.

The “science was wrong before” crowd never makes similar demands for anything else to be perfect before using. When science changes, it does not change randomly. It updates and improves. Science changing to fit the observable facts is something good, not something bad. Many simpler models used in the past, including Newtonian mechanics, is still highly accurate today in many areas of life. New models have to agree with older models in areas where they both apply and are considered reasonable.

Many attacks on science due to some sophisticated sociological argument are self-refuting, since anti-science areas would have at least as severe problems. Several of the historical examples brought up by the “science was wrong before” crowd are inaccurate. Finally, science has a huge array of different fields and methods. It is not credible to point to weaknesses or problems in one area as an argument against a completely different area.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

6 thoughts on ““Science Was Wrong Before!”

  • May 11, 2018 at 22:27
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    Being wrong is a very important part of how science grows. That is why, over forty years ago, Latakos shifted the emphasis in the philosophy of science from more or less static theories (which are generally wrong about at least something) to the dynamic research programmes of which they form part. I wrote about this recently, using “All swans are white” as a toy example: https://phys.org/news/2018-05-evolution-scientific-theories.html

    Reply
  • May 11, 2018 at 22:54
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    I don’t think it’s fair to imply that ‘science has been wrong before’ is a ‘sophisticated sociological argument’. There’s nothing sophisticated about it and it’s not representative of sociology as an academic discipline (most sociologists that I know are strongly evidence-based in their work).

    Reply
    • May 11, 2018 at 23:04
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      I never implied that “science was wrong before” is a sophisticated sociological argument. What I wrote is that there is a sophisticated sociological criticism of scientists and science as an institution. This includes the sociology of science and science studies.

      A lot of it has merits, some of it does not. Useful historical case studies that you may want to look into are the “science wars” during the 1990s and the conflicts over sociobiology.

  • May 12, 2018 at 18:03
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    Your statement that ‘The “science was wrong before” crowd never makes similar demands for anything else to be perfect before using.’ needs to extended to the idea that those who use this argument infrequently look at the history of religion. With religion ‘being wrong’ means that a new division now exists in the belief system and both continue along pretty much independent of each other. In religion, ‘wrongness’ is only from the limited viewpoint of those who have different ideas. Religious ‘rightness’ requires no evidence, no proof. Neither does religious ‘wrongness’.

    Reply
  • May 16, 2018 at 17:44
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    The only thing “Science Was Wrong Before” is a good argument for is for scientists to keep doing their job and trying to find evidence that backs up, or refutes something about our current understanding of the universe. Its not an argument for people who have never gotten anything written in a peer reviewed scientific journal or even taken a single course on a subject to say that they know better than the experts in the field. You have to do a lot of work to overturn the scientific consensus, not just come up with your own idea and point out that scientists have been wrong in the past. You have to do the research, and get the data that shows that they’re wrong today and change the consensus in order to do that.

    Reply
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