On The Notion of Facts in Science


Isaac Newton

Image via Wikipedia

Let’s face it, the idea of a scientific fact, in the colloquial usage of the word “fact,” as a statement of something that is considered conclusively proven, timelessly true, and definitively known, is something that should be taken outside, stood in front of a firing squad, and shot.

Multiple times.

It is true, that at one time, scientific fact-claims were thought to be certain, timeless, and complete, but we know better after almost half a millennium of doing science and discovering newer and cooler things, not the least of which are newer and cooler ways to think about science.

We now know that there are no statements of scientific fact with any absolute truth-value, but rather provisional scientific findings.

Whoa, that’s a pretty bold claim, so let me try to justify it…

A fact, as commonly used, is often implied to be like the mathematical truism that in base 10 arithmetic, 2+2=4. Period. End of story.

In mathematics, truth statements are self-evidently and necessarily correct within the formal conventions of a system, as is the case with all formal reasoning methods.

But in science, factual statements as such take on a different meaning. A finding of science is always capable of being shown wrong, even when previously well-established by earlier, less rigorous data and reasoning.

All discoveries in science are based upon observational data and reasoning from both deductive and inductive inferences, and even ‘conclusive’ inferences are open to revision, even capable of overturning by newer and better data and concepts using more refined methods of inquiry when the older models are found to be inadequate in scope, predictive power, and other criteria.

It is true that a given finding may be so well supported by the data, continuing to make successful predictions beyond the base theory for a long, long time, that it can attain the equivalent inductive status of a nearly rock-solid fact.

Nearly. But not quite. Even though such ideas inspire a good deal of sound confidence in their correctness, it’s never total, never incontrovertible.

Old ideas can still have both predictive usefulness and be outmoded at the same time.

Newton’s ideas on gravity, in particular, his idea that space and time are absolute, with privileged frames of reference, was shown conceptually wrong, and that idea was superceded by general relativity, but for most everyday purposes, Newtonian mechanics are still useful in most everyday applications, especially the launching of spacecraft into orbit.

There’s always the possibility of relativity being shown wrong in some way as the earlier Newtonian model as, and in some cases, even today, though it is successfully used in global positioning systems, relativity is in major ways demonstrably inconsistent with findings of quantum mechanics, findings that themselves are well-established by observation, hence the ongoing search for a new theory of physics to bring relativity and QM together as a single idea in a new synthesis, or at the very least, a theory of quantum gravity.

A claim of fact, insofar as the scientific sense is concerned, can be supported to an amazingly high level of confidence, a probability of being true very close to 1, but in time, even the best-established ideas may be overturned, replaced, revised, or merely deepened, given a higher level of precision, as relativity did for Newtonian mechanics, even as it gave it new conceptual underpinnings, with gravity explained not as a force, but as the curvature of space-time bending the paths of objects.

A new theory of quantum gravity may yet overturn that, and other well-supported ideas in other fields, such as currently understood mechanisms of biological evolution, may be amended, rejected, or modified to fit new data and better research.

Any idea in science can and may be superceded, but if and when they are, this will be done by scientists doing the work of science, not New Agers, creationists, parapsychologists, or politicians doing the work of antiscience.

In science, there are no dogmas, and the only factual claims made are tentatives by the very nature of the scientific enterprise, never certain but sterile tenets or timeless self-sealing doctrines.

(Last Update: 2011/05/04, 12:21 am, Corrections to text errors made)

There. Ambiguity and equivocation fixed.

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