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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptic > 22.3 > Science, Facts, and “Provisional” Knowledge

Science, Facts, and “Provisional” Knowledge

What drives us onward in the work of science is precisely the sense that there are truths out there to be discovered, truths that once discovered will form a permanent part of human knowledge. —Steve Weinberg, 20011

…all scientific knowledge, however acquired, is inherently provisional. —Ian Tattersall, 20082

It is a fact that we are cousins of gorillas, kangaroos, starfish, and bacteria. Evolution is as much a fact as the heat of the sun. It is not a theory, and for pity’s sake, let’s stop confusing the philosophically naïve by calling it so. Evolution is a fact. —Richard Dawkins, 20053

Science is not about final truth or “facts”; it is only about continually testing and trying to falsify our hypotheses, until they are extremely well-supported. —Donald P. Prothero, 2007 4

No one should suppose that objective truth is impossible to attain, even when the most committed philosophers urge us to acknowledge that incapacity. —Edward O. Wilson, 19985

I could have easily doubled the number of quotes that open this article by well-respected scientists who respectively seem to be saying two distinctly different things. Either, science is able to discover facts and truths concerning the physical universe, or science can never discover lasting facts or truths about the universe. Bertrand Russell wrote that while religion lays claim to eternal and absolute truth, “science is always tentative.” But later in the same book he writes: “I cannot admit any method of arriving at truth except that of science.”6 Statements like these can confuse even some scientists, and surely they have the potential to greatly confuse the general public—giving the impression that scientists can’t agree on this important and basic point.

Such conflicting statements suggest an apparent dualism in the scientific community. While we want students and the public to know that scientists don’t all agree on every topic and finding in science, I doubt scientists really want people to think that most scientists are not even “on the same page” on the fundamental question of whether or not science can discover facts about the universe. This situation does not make for clear and effective communication between the scientific community and society. Fortunately, essentially no modern scientist claims that all scientific knowledge is factual, but unfortunately many scientists do claim that none of the conclusions science has arrived at are factual.

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SPECIAL ISSUE: Did a Mysterious Unknown Advanced Civilization Help Ancient Peoples Build Their Monuments? SPECIAL SECTION — EVALUATING THE EVIDENCE FOR AN ADVANCED LOST CIVILIZATION: Debating Science and Lost Civilizations: My Experience on the Joe Rogan Experience by Michael Shermer; Conjuring Up a Lost Civilization: An Analysis of the Claims Made by Graham Hancock in Magicians of the Gods by Marc Defant; Lost Civilizations and Imaginative Conjectures: An Analysis of the Myths and History of Graham Hancock’s Magicians of the Gods by Tim Callahan. SPECIAL SECTION — AN ACADEMIC HOAX: Failure to Communicate: Why We Published the “Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” Hoax Exposé by Michael Shermer; The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies by Peter Boghossian (aka Peter Boyle, Ed.D.) and James Lindsay (aka, Jamie Lindsay, Ph.D.); More Fashionable Nonsense Some thoughts on “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct” Hoax by Alan Sokal. ARTICLES: Big News on Homo naledi: More Fossils and a Surprising Young Age by Nathan H. Lents; The Real Origin of UFOs and Aliens: How the Media Shaped Our Ideas About Extraterrestrials by Tim Callahan; Publicly Funded Stem Cell Research: California’s $3-Billion Experiment in Public Science by Raymond Barglow; How to Tame a Fox and Build a Dog by Lee Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut; Science, Facts, and “Provisional” Knowledge by David Zeigler. COLUMNS: The SkepDoc: Juicing for Health or Torture by Harriet Hall, M.D. The Gadfly: Our Angry Era by Carol Tavris. JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Zombies: The Gruesome True Story of Zombies by Daniel Loxton