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Pabitra Mukhopadhyay


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Truths and Facts. Does Science prove anything?

There is a great deal of interest of us in examining claims of ‘truths’ and ‘facts’. In such examination there is a noticeable stress on scientifically proven facts which can be taken as fundamentally true. This is possibly because mathematics is the language of Science and we make mistake thinking mathematical proofs to be reflecting the essence of scientifically proven facts.

Does science necessarily prove anything? The way mathematics proves a proposition?

It is surprising that such a basic debate cannot be laid to rest and a conclusion arrived at even after 1934 book by Karl Popper: The Logic of Scientific Discovery.

Alan Moghissi, Matthew Amin and Connor McNulty of Institute for Regulatory Science, Alexandria, Va wrote to the editor of Science (the magazine) disagreeing with Peter Gleick and 250 members of the (US) National Academy of Sciences writing to the editor of Science : All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts. There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions; science never absolutely proves anything.


Is there an absolutely proven scientific fact?


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    May 9 2013: In a sense mathematics only proves the proposition if within the proposition one includes the postulates which are being assumed. For example, many proofs in mathematics rely on the parallel postulate. The parallel postulate is a given within Euclidean Geometry. It is not valid in either spherical geometry or hyperbolic geometry.

    So most of the proofs people do in classical geometry can be considered proved only with the additional specific statement, "Within Euclidean geometry..."

    I totally understood the point in the letter to which you linked. That typically people have two arms and two legs seems acceptable as fact in short, medium, and long run, if not with 100% certainty for all time. I think it is useful to understand the strength of support for scientific claims and also to understand the context.
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      May 10 2013: Hi Fritzie,
      Problem is that lay people do not always understand how science works. This leads to 'scienticism'. There is another debate going on in TED where an author is contending that General Relativity is wrong. It appears from reading the conversation that the author insists he will establish his idea only through open debate, the way lawyers establish a legal point, and not provide mathematical back-up of his idea.
      Mere understanding of how science works can remove a lot of pointless debates, I hope.
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        May 10 2013: I understand that people do not always know how science works. People particularly don't understand what theorists do, confusing theory (which needs to be consistent with observation) and pure speculation.

        The problem when one doesn't understand something is the matter of the sound bite. That science does not prove things, in the sense that any conclusion is open permanently to reconsideration and correction, does not mean that science is just another mythology with best understandings deserving no more weight than anyone's unsupported hunch.

        I have not been following the General Relativity thread, but I know we have had people occasionally decide that multiverse theory means that you can pick the universe in which you actually live and literally shape it in its every detail to your will. And, in connection to your point, some believe such a "theory" has effectively the same validity (or prior probabilities) and follows from the same analytic process as a theory in physics.

        Have you any recommendation on how to correct this problem in a way that can overcome confirmation bias? You might say to teach it early and often, but I suspect people forget lots of stuff they learn regardless.
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          May 10 2013: Wish we are taught philosophy, ethics and values from very young age, Fritzie. It may not be that difficult as we normally think. People forget information but not values, at least not so easily.
          I can notice a deep rooted insecurity of human mind to live with relativity, uncertianty and indeterminacy. We are 'absolute' seekers basically. It goes to the extent that someone who has spent a lifetime realizing the inderminate nature of reality of the physical world at its core makes the mistake of thinking this indeterminacy as absolute :)
          My recommendation would be to have an education system that will create a society as free thinking as possible. From very yoing age we should be able to realize the probabilistic nature of physical world, the meaning and significance of 'truths', 'facts' within the practical thresold of life, the difference between intution and consideration, true worth of an opinion and most imorantly the place and applicability of logic to make meaning of the world.
          Somehow a world divided into scientific community and lay people is not taking us anywhere.
      • May 11 2013: So by your words, everything must have a mathematical component?

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