How Do We Know What is Established by Science?

What does it mean when we say that something is scientifically well established? Scientists who seek to learn something new do not know what others are studying at a given moment. They thus work with some degree of urgency, because others might discover the answer to the question they are exploring, and publish it first, getting the credit for it. Being second to publish an important finding is like kissing your sister. Nice, but not a thrill, for most. There is another force at work though, and that is the need to get it right the first time. If your evidence is poor, or poorly interpreted, and you manage to publish it, you are at considerable risk of somebody else publishing a correction. This is like getting spanked in front of house guests. Embarrassing, mortifying even. People have been known to change fields or get out of science altogether. Now and then there are frauds who deliberately publish false results. They are quickly detected and debunked by other scientists who are only too eager to show them up. Most often such people are unable to find work in science after that. What does not cause problems is if somebody discovers something new that causes a revision in current theory. This is the point of scientific inquiry.

The December 11 Albany Times Union ran an article about various comments Donald Trump has made on climate change. Most recently he said nobody knows if climate change is real. At a rally he asked for a show of hands to see how many believed in climate change. Another time he claimed he jokingly called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. Other reports say he is about to name a climate change denier from Oklahoma as head of the EPA.

This shows not only Mr. Trump’s ignorance but also that of a large part of the public. Sadly, many people do not understand science and technology, even though their lives depend on these endeavors. We all drive cars, use electricity, and most of us get our annual flu shots, all of which depend absolutely on science and technology. People act as if they believe in science and technology, even if they say that they do not, or are they not sure, or that “nobody really knows.”

People with an investment in outmoded ideas on evolution or climate change are apt to say – “Oh, that is just a theory.” This exploits a simple error of language, where a single word can have two quite different meanings. In layman’s language a theory is a hunch, even an unlikely hunch. But in science a theory is a collection of well tested ideas that explains a large body of information, such as evolution, or gravity, electromagnetic radiation, or climate change. It is extremely unlikely that any scientist, let alone a lawyer or a politician, could come up with a scientifically credible refutation of any of these theories.


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