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The “Science Does Not Know Everything” Conundrum

What happens when science says one thing and you believe something different? Our brains are designed to fight such situations and we try to apply logic to justify our beliefs – we basically make stuff up so that we can continue to accept our beliefs.

One of the most common reasons to dismiss science, is to point out the fact that “science does not know everything”. If it does not know everything, then it might be wrong in all cases.

That seems logical, but it’s not.

If science proves facts that conflict with Buddhist understanding, Buddhism must change accordingly. We should always adopt a view that accords with the facts. - Dalai LamaLink to the source of this image

Science Does Not Know Everything

It is true that science does not know everything. We are learned new things about the world around us every day and that new knowledge will change the beliefs we have today.

Given that fact, it seems logical that we don’t actually know anything. And if that is the case, science can’t be used to disprove any belief.

The problem with this argument is that it assumes all scientific knowledge is equally unknown and that is just not true. The idea that the  earth is round is now almost certain – we accept it as a true fact. The latest information about how the brain works is very likely to be incorrect or at least partially incorrect. Every bit of scientific knowledge has associated with it a degree of certainty.

We never talk about this degree of certainty, but it is there.

Uncertainty in Scientific Knowledge

The uncertainty is a direct result of the scientific process. It is an iterative process – a fine tuning process if you will. An initial discovery is followed up by more research, by others, to verify the facts. Through this process a single idea is explored and better understood. So called facts are either verified or disproved.

Research is very much and ongoing process and new information is continually added to the pile of knowledge. Over time a given piece of knowledge is verified many times. During this process the level of uncertainty is increased to a point where it gets so high that we accept it as fact.

We now accept the fact that the earth is round – or at least most of us do – not sure about Trump?

Science Can Be Wrong

People who do not understand the scientific process make use of the fact that science is not always right to justify their beliefs. Here are some examples of comments left on this blog by people who will not accept our knowledge about Roundup.

“For 10 years it was widely accepted by MOST scientists that humans possessed 48 chromosomes. It didn’t make them right.”

“For about 50 years, there was no proof that smoking caused cancer and a host of other diseases; but that’s because the tobacco industry spent billions of dollars burying evidence and buying scientists to falsify results. They finally were found out but for decades we heard there was no evidence. My money says the same thing is true of Roundup.”

Clearly, there is a logical connection between our knowledge about Roundup, DNA, and tobacco smoke! I just can’t find it 🙂

These people were able to find a fact of known science which turned out to be false. Therefore all other scientific facts are also wrong. It allows them to justify their beliefs, without knowing any real facts about the subject matter.

Do Humans have 48 or 46 Chromosomes?

It is true that in the early 1900, scientists thought we had 48 chromosomes. It turns out we have 46.

Stanley M. Gartler (ref 1) has written a real interesting historical review on the subject where he says “Human chromosome numbers were determined in the 1890s, and by 1914 at least 15 investigators had published papers reporting the chromosome number in humans. With one exception, the counts were low, with most reporting 24 as the diploid number. The lone exception was Hans de Winiwarter, who reported a count of 47 from testes and 48 from fetal ovaries. As we now know, only Winiwarter’s counts were close to being correct, apparently because he realized the importance of fresh material and immediate fixation, to avoid the clumping of chromatin. Once the need for fresh specimens and immediate fixation was recognized, reports of low chromosome counts disappeared.”

What went wrong with science? Nothing really, scientists just did not realize that chromosomes change in old specimens. The data was refined over time – the scientific method worked as designed.

For the next 50 years scientists tried to determine the right number of chromosomes and usually came up with the number 48. Read Stanley M. Gartler’s article for some very interesting details.

One reason why it took so long was that human material was hard to come by. Stanley reports “Spermatogonial cells are one of the few sources of rapidly dividing human cells; in humans, such samples in the 1920s and 1930s were difficult to obtain. Malcolm Kottler, in his excellent history of the human chromosome counting story, relates that cytologists literally waited at the foot of the gallows in order to fix the testis of an executed criminal immediately
after death before the chromosomes could clump.”

It took almost 50 years and several scientific advances in DNA research to reach the conclusion that humans have 46 chromosomes. But this is not an example of science failing us. It is an example of the scientific method working.

Smoking Causes Cancer

The statement “For about 50 years, there was no proof that smoking caused cancer and a host of other diseases; but that’s because the tobacco industry spent billions of dollars burying evidence and buying scientists to falsify results” is not correct. It is true that the industry was not honest in its findings, but non-industry scientists warned about the connection between smoking and cancer in 1950 (ref 2).

The reality is that most people smoked and learning that they had a cancer causing habit did cause them to stop. Most politicians smoked and they did not want to quit, nor did they want to lose the tax revenue. This is a case where government simply did what the people wanted – they ignored the science.

There is another big issue here. When it comes to human health and studying long term effects, the science is very difficult to do. You can’t make 100 people smoke and then dissect them to see what happened. You have to wait until they die and then try to relate their death to the cause. But humans are complex and live a long time. There are no clean controls – there is lots of normal variation among people. Some people get cancer easily and others smoke all their life and never get it. Showing true cause and effect relationships in living organisms is very difficult. This is one reason that a lot of health studies end up being wrong.

One alternative is to do testing on lab rats and other organisms, but these results may or may not be true for real world conditions.

Human science is tough science and it takes many studies and a lot of time to increase the degree of certainty to a point where we can consider ideas to be facts.

Roundup and Degree of Certainty

The fact that we initially got the number of chromosomes wrong, or waited too long to do something about smoking are very poor arguments for not believing facts about Roundup or any other scientific facts.

The LD50 values for glyphosate have been well studied and scientists accept the data as fact – it has a real high degree of certainty.

The product has been used for over 50 years with no indication that normal exposure levels cause problems in humans or soil microbes. This is a less certain fac than the LD50 value, but 50 years is quite a long time and most scientists are now convinced that the degree of certainty is high enough to consider it a fact. Several large organizations such as the EPA and WHO (at least one division) have agreed that glyphosate does not cause cancer. This conclusion is based on the review of thousands of research studies.

Is there a chance that we don’t know everything about Roundup? Absolutely. But the degree of certainty for the above facts is now quite high and it is unlikely we will find a smoking gun.

Science Knows a Lot

The very nature of the scientific process guarantees that we don’t know everything. But over time it is self correctly and we increase the degree of certainty about things we think we know. At some point we have to believe in the facts science is telling us.

What alternative do we have?

References:

  1. The chromosome number in humans: a brief history; http://www.nature.com/scitable/content/The-chromosome-number-in-humans-a-brief-15575
  2. Discovery of a Link Between Smoking and Cancer; http://www.news-medical.net/news/2005/07/25/11957.aspx
  3. Photo source: A-Z Quotes

 

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Robert Pavlis
Editor of GardenMyths.com
I live in southern Ontario, Canada, zone 5 and have been gardening a long time. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

I hope you find Garden Myths an educational site that helps you understand your garden better.

21 Responses to 'The “Science Does Not Know Everything” Conundrum'

  1. Linda Hawkins says:

    I truly appreciate the information in this article. I am a Master Gardener and a commercial landscaper. I teach about gardening practices in classrooms and to my clients. Everything I teach is scientifically proven. Sometimes I personally struggle with practices being proven scientifically wrong when I “feel” the practice makes complete sense. Is it possible that science can be researching a product that has dual intentions, like a type of soil amendment, only one way? Meaning the way it was tested isn’t the main reason for using it? Is it possible that science says a product provides minimum benefits to the plant and not worth the investment but the product is used to benefit the soil mostly and provides benefits to the plant down the road, long after the test are finished? The second claim of the product is never tested, or is it? I think I am the reason for your article, a poster child so to speak.

    • Very good questions – and yes, yes and yes. Here is the problem. When you do a research project you set certain goals for testing, and you have limitations. For example. we can only test two types of plants, not all 50,000 species. We can only test in the soil in our test plots, not in every one of thousands of different soil types. etc. We will run the study for 6 months, or 2 years – not 50 years.

      When the results come in we will be able to say certain things about the test, but they will be quite specific due to the various limitations. Many researchers are careful not to exaggerate the results, but that does happen. For example, a result may seem not to be dependent of species type and so the researcher concludes the results for all plants, but all plants were not tested.

      Usually this work is followed up by similar testing by others, in slightly different conditions, with slightly different limitations. If the results are the same, scientists start feeling more comfortable about extrapolating the conclusions. This confidence increases over time as more and more testing is done.

      A product may show no short term benefits, but provide long term soil benefits, which in the long term benefits plants. It is also possible that a product provides benefits, but they are too small to be easily measured. And any testing only looks at certain parameters – not every possible parameter. So the product may not increase the size of the plant, but maybe it increased certain chemicals in the plant which lead to small benefits fighting off insects – but this was never tested.

      To resolve this uncertainty, science says that something has no benefits until someone can show specific benefits. It is up to the manufacturer to show less insect damage. If science did not do this, we would have trouble reaching any conclusion.

      These are some of the reasons why people feel that science makes too many mistakes. It is impossible to test everything, in all conditions, for all parameters. We have to make some extrapolations. When these extrapolations prove to be incorrect, science looks bad, but this is really part of the scientific process. It is a self correcting process that over time gets closer and closer to the truth.

  2. Cory says:

    Have people actually told you that since science does not know everything then it might be wrong about everything ? Or did they maybe say since science does not know everything Could it be wrong about something’s ? Did those people who talked about Roundup, DNA and tobacco smoke really say all science is wrong or maybe that some of it is. I’ve never met people like that. I find that shocking. Maybe GMO’s are not the holy grail but we do know we can grow crops that are not GMO. Besides nature does genetically modify organisms in nature it happens a lot. However the GMO’s people want labelled don’t usually occur in nature.

  3. Aurelien B says:

    Organically grown fruits are better to fight cancer cells than conventionally grown fruits.

    Antioxidant levels and inhibition of cancer cell proliferation in vitro by extracts from organically and conventionally cultivated strawberries. J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Feb 22;54(4):1248-55.
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16478244

    • Interesting study, but proves nothing. You can’t take these kind of studies and extrapolate it to human health.

    • Matthew Koster says:

      Be careful about running too far with information. Experiments conducted in vitro should NEVER be used to draw conclusions about events in real time living organisms. There are dozens of studies just like this one that show antioxidants from plants inhibiting cancer cells or protecting DNA or improving certain metabolic processes, but when those experiments are carried out in vivo, the results show no benefit. It is still unclear how much if any antioxidants present in human cells come from our diet. Another example is our fuzzy understanding of what is and isn’t an antioxidant, ascorbic acid (AKA vitamin C), for instance, acts like an antioxidant in vitro, but our understanding of how it functions in the human body is not as an antioxidant, but rather as a component of the bodies immune system metabolism.

      People’s biggest hang up with science is that there will always be a degree of uncertainty regarding what we hold as true. Comfort is derived from certainty, so a lack of absolute certainty carries a degree of discomfort. I think the article does a good job of pointing out the unfortunate tendency of people to demand a black and white existence, but the world and science is gray. In the United States I blame a lack of quality science education as the reason for so much distrust.

      One last thing… Science proves nothing. This is probably one of the hardest concepts for people to wrap their heads around (that and entropy), but always keep in mind science proves nothing, it only compiles evidence for or against.

  4. Thomas Brophh says:

    Here’s my take on this GMO or GE food issue. Despite innumerable studies and much research, there would appear to be a lack of complete understanding or agreement of human nutrition and its consequences, even by knowledgeable scientists/physicians.
    So long as GMO’s are considered “safe” for consumption, they may be marketed. However, I think there should be no objection to their being labeled as such. What raises my red-flag hackles is the opposition to labeling that arises from those seeking to profit from consumption by an unknowing public. Label them, and let those who wish to consume them do so knowingly, and those who wish to avoid them also do so. As with “organic” and “conventionally” grown foodstuffs, the former might convey no discernible nutritional benefits, but then again, there might be some long- term health related issues–or not. Let people advisedly choose. The more the science becomes settled– like the round earth issue–the more decisions will fall to that side.

    • Labeling costs money which the consumer pays for – all consumers, not just the ones who care.

      A second problem is that once the food ingredient is processed, the GMO version and the non-GMO version are chemically identical. Labeling would be based on the honesty of companies, and not on any scientific testing that could be done.

      A third problem is that if all of the evidence shows the food is safe, labeling sends the wrong message to an uninformed public.

      • Thomas Broohy says:

        Why wouldn’t the extra money for labeling non-gmo products simply come from slightly higher costs for those particular products, like organic food costs more for those who want to buy it.
        Also, if gmo foods and non-gmo’s are chemically identical, are they genetically identical? Wouldn’t testing reveal those differences. If genes from totally unrelated plants/animals are inserted in order to create an organism that is either more repellant to insects/diseases, or more able to tolerate heavier doses of herbicide/pesticide, doesn’t that create meaningful differences?

  5. Meg says:

    There is so much written about the safety or dangers of GMO’s, that it’s hard to sift through and find scientific proof, at least not without spending time and money to get the actual research articles. Then there is the possibliity that the research is false due to corruption, bribes etc. Here’s a typical example; http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2017/03/28/epa-monsanto-collusion.aspx?utm_source=dnl&utm_medium=email&utm_content=art1&utm_campaign=20170328Z3&et_cid=DM140100&et_rid=1944636657

    Love your articles, thanks so much!
    M

  6. John says:

    Good blog posting today. Thanks. In addition to understanding how science works (ie: an iterative process), an understanding of our own inherent biases can be instructive, as these biases have an impact on how we process information. Reference: Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

  7. Inger Knudsen says:

    Maybe we should start to write GE’s instead of GMO’s. I think people do not want food from a lab but stuff from the great outdoors is okay. I think that people feel removed from the science world, if you have never taken a chemistry class it can all look like a mirage. The intricate world of molecules feels far removed from our intuition and connection to nature

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