Let’s stop pretending we know everything

We often fail to notice things that we are not expecting. Lisa Randall, Physicist

Can we please stop pretending we have the answers or are on a knowledge home run where the main issues are settled with only scraps to be tidied up?

The reality is –

  1. We hardly know anything
  2. What we think we know changes constantly, often in astounding ways
  3. The best method we have for discovering facts, scientific method, is limited
  4. Science is not reality but provides models of reality
  5. Science is robust, not unequivocal, it can produce wrong answers that are useful and seemingly right answers that are wrong
  6. What is real varies between systems, people and within ourselves
  7. We cannot even conceive of what is yet to be asked, making imagination as important as science for progress.

To claim to know for certain, in particular about issues that do not yield to testing, is unscientific and given history, likely unwise.

  1. We hardly know anything

Once we’d never heard of dark energy and matter, now we know they make up 95% of the cosmos, meaning less than 5% is made of what we once considered ‘normal’. (Dr Lisa Randall suggests that since dark matter does not interact with us it should have been called transparent.)

That’s a phenomenal revision of known versus unknown if you consider that dark matter was discovered fewer than 18 years ago.

Extrapolate broadly.

I am not saying we don’t know things, we do –

  1. If you boil an egg, the protein denatures, it goes hard
  2. Light travels at 299 792 458 meters a second
  3. Immunisation works
  4. Warfarin thins the blood
  5. Methanol can be fatal to an adult.

We know a lot about a lot of things.

But there is way more that we don’t know and this should compel us to keep an open mind.

2. What we think we know changes constantly, often in astounding ways

Take the atom.

At school I learned atoms were ‘elementary particles’, the smallest stuff you could get. Elementary meant they could not be broken down more.

These days we think of an atom more like the mother-ship of a sub-particle zoo of stuff so minute some particles can’t be described as having size. We found the atom was made of sub-atomic particles — the electron, the proton and the neutron, which could be divided further into quarks and so on. Part of that zoo, the Higgs-Boson particle, annihilates itself as quickly as it forms and is so small that it’s not really described as having size, but instead as a ‘resonance’. The once-elementary atom has become a giant.

Just this year we discovered a new subatomic particle.

Having said that, thinking about smaller and smaller things is a way of seeing/thinking and a limited way of seeing/thinking. Instead, a different way of approaching descriptions of reality is to think about how things relate to each other. (see endnote 1)

Even in areas we consider well established, like botany and biology, we are revising what we know as more information, including from other fields, becomes available.

For example, we have known for a very long time that –

  • Enzymes are catalysts that speed up chemical reactions in the cells many times over
  • Plants soak up the sun (photosynthesis) and use it to grow
  • Birds migrate in winter.

That may be right but we have reached a conclusion through partial insight.

  • Sometimes we know that something happens, but not why.
  • Or why something happens, but not how.
  • Or until there are good-enough tools we have no idea that it is happening at all.

Then we learn more.

In a fascinating talk, quantum physicist Jim Khalil cites emerging (admittedly speculative) research that shows quantum physics may play in the macro world, a field known as quantum biology.

With respect to the above examples –

  • Enzymes may work fast because subatomic particles flip from one part of the DNA molecule to the other using quantum tunnelling (Klinman)
  • The stored energy in a plant’s cells travels along multiple pathways simultaneously (quantum coherence) to find the fastest, most efficient path for the photons to reach the reaction centres where light energy is converted into chemical energy (Hildner)
  • In the eye of European robins, electrons are spatially separated but affect each other through entanglement and may change spin depending on the earth’s gravitational field, this could mean birds actually see the earth’s magnetic field as they fly. (Benjamin.)

You don’t have to understand this to understand its implications.

These examples should help us hold views more lightly, in particular when it comes to bigger, more esoteric questions that do not lend themselves to investigation.

They might induce a sense of astonishment, like –

  • Gee, I wonder if there could be even more to this, or
  • This isn’t necessarily the end of the road, or
  • Could there be something else underneath that again?

Instead, one more person is slapped back into place by someone who claims to know ‘the truth’ and have ‘the answer’ and who believes they are right, right, right and (more to the point) everyone else should agree.

3. Science is not reality, it’s a model of reality

Where does this overconfidence (or fear, or insecurity) about being right come from?

Belief is complex and is influenced by character, gender, race, upbringing, cultural environment and the political system to name only a few.

The unequivocal ‘I know’ can come from faith, including the faith we have that science is the truth.

Instead, a scientific experiment produces data that refutes a specific hypothesis. That question may be nestled within a more encompassing theory, same idea.

An experiment can produce excellent or questionable data and anything in between depending on how it is set up and run. There’s good science and bad science. Good science pokes holes in the bad and that is one of the many areas in which scientific rigour comes into its own.

For example, a systematic review of 6 self-controlled case series, 2 ecological studies, one case crossover trial, five time series trials, 17 case-control studies, 27 cohort studies and 5 randomised control trials of over 15 million children is undeniably more robust that the now-discredited study that used a few subjects, false data and no statistics to claim vaccines caused autism.

In the context of what I am saying here, my point is that we may learn more about vaccines in the future and the diseases they protect us against, new ways of dealing with these illnesses may emerge, we may be able to tailor medications or their delivery systems to better suit individuals, we might discover what we thought caused a symptom masked a deeper underlying factor, the door is not closed.

But eggs boil, E = mc2, the liver needs vitamin K.

What I am saying is that science should not be confused with a fixed and immovable reality, it does not claim to be, but that is often how it is understood in particular by laypeople.

Science is not reality, it’s an approach; scientific method is a process and one with limitations.

Now in my experience such is its hegemony of science (where I come from) that to acknowledge a limitation in the methodology, even to clarify what it is from what it is not, can raise hackles.

  • Oh, so you don’t believe in science?
  • No, that is not what I said. I said, scientific methodology has limitations, which, scientists acknowledge.

We get all cross-eyed and frothy-mouthed when someone pokes at a sacred cow.

Like when I wrote that rationality was a myth we should not aspire to and someone replied asking if I thought we should do away with encyclopaedias. No, I replied, facts are good, the better the facts, the better. (A point I had made in the post.)

4. The best method we have for discovering facts, scientific method, is itself limited

Saying there are limits to scientific methodology is neither anti-science nor unscientific nor does it undermine the respect I have for the rigours of science. It’s just a fact.

But along the line we’ve learned to associate science with ‘right ‘and unscientific with ‘wrong’; whereas saying something is unscientific simply means it cannot be tested in ways that refute it.

This can happen amongst other things because –

  1. We don’t have the right tools (Democritus speculated about atoms but it took thousands of years before an electron microscope enabled us to see them, Einstein predicted gravitational waves but did not think we could build tools to detect them)
    What Colliding Black Holes Sound Like | Video
  2. There are too many options to test (according to Brian Greene there are 10 to the 500 candidate shapes to test in string theory, a theory about the fundamental structure of the universe, abandoning string theory may not mean it’s wrong but untestable)
  3. We use models that don’t adequately translate into humans; scientists like Mattison and Raza says billions are wasted in drug development because mouse models give false leads. According to Raza a scientific paper showed that nearly 150 drugs tested, at the cost of billions of dollars, in human trials of sepsis failed because the drugs had been developed using mice. She argues that it’s not a matter of experimental design and that there are no appropriate mouse models that mirror the human situation. Mattson argues that standard control rats and mice used in biomedical research are sedentary, obese, glucose intolerant and confound data interpretation and outcomes of human studies. A debate has raged over the issue. Instead, reconstructing human cells on a chip (which is possible) offers a better option. Although I am referring here to mice models, this applies broadly. Even findings of a particular area of the brain discovered ‘on a slab in the lab’ may not apply to the same area of the brain in situ (the old anatomy over physiology.) Here’s another example of where using mouse models has failed to give us accurate insights into the human brain.
  4. The hypothesis-model-test approach may be obsolete, data combined with applied mathematics may replace the need for semantic or causal analysis in some areas
  5. We can’t agree on the definition of what we want to discuss
  6. We don’t know what question to ask to disprove our thesis; what hypothesis would you test for a God that wasn’t inane or anthropomorphic? No lightning strike after someone blasphemes? Hardly. That bad things happen? Humans do a perfectly good job of that on their own. You might say who needs God when we have the laws of physics (in which case prove it) but others might say the laws of physics are God (in which case prove it). That’s why atheism is unscientific. Not because it’s right or wrong but because it can’t be tested and refuted. (Note that atheism is not disbelief but a lack of belief in gods and supernatural beings, further it should not be assumed that all atheists share similar belief systems. I make the point to illustrate that a methodology that relies on asking questions in order to refute them runs into problems.)

Of course, a critical limitation to scientific enquiry is that we can only test a question we ask.

5. Science is robust, not unequivocal, it produces wrong answers that are useful and seemingly right answers that are wrong

Robust is not a synonym for truth

Science has never claimed to offer unequivocal truths, only robust testing, but scientific findings are often presented as truth.

Our faith stems in part from a belief that science self-corrects by exposing false insights over time, but there’s an alarming degree to which it does not.

Wrong (or partial) answers can be useful

Newton’s laws describe how the world works but are wrong at the subatomic level, nevertheless, they are useful. We’ve used them to build bridges, planes and rockets.


Mendelian genetics told us genes were recessive and dominant and traits were inherited. This helped us understand why we had brown or blue eyes and how to breed different coloured flowers, amongst other things.

Now we know genes and proteins interact, epigenetics has shown that environment can influence inheritable traits, something we thought impossible.

The environment modifies genes through chemical tags that attach to DNA and switch genes on and off. Some (albeit controversial) research into trauma suggests these tags are passed on, meaning the effects of trauma could be intergenerational. Potentially too those of love? (While there’s no research yet into whether positive emotion may cause tagging, negativity bias is well established. We mourn loss more than we enjoy the benefit. The brain processes negative and positive events in different hemispheres and we pay more attention to negative events, possibly because doing so gives us a survival advantage. This may mean traumatic rather than positive emotion is more prone to trigger chemical tagging. Given that tagging has not yet been robustly established we will have to wait and see what future research shows.)

Seemingly right answers can be wrong

But even when all the ducks are lined up, when –

  • There’s something to test
  • Within testable parameters
  • Using powerful tools

We can still come up with the wrong answer.

For example, our best evidence tells us the universe is expanding (the two independent teams of scientists who discovered this were trying to work out the rate at which the universe was contracting, a great example of scientific method in action because their data refuted the hypothesis and a new theory, inflation, replaced it.)

Inflation means galaxies are moving away from each other at an increasing rate. Something is forcing the expansion of the universe to accelerate, not decelerate. Dark energy — acting like an ‘anti-gravity’ over roughly the last half of the universe, is proposed to explain this strange discovery.

Eventually galaxies will be so far apart that light will not be able to travel fast enough between them to be seen. In that future if we looked out we’d see nothing and may assume nothing else existed as Brian Greene and Andrei Linde explain.

The obvious question is whether things exist now that we don’t see in the same way?

We don’t need cosmological hypotheticals to tell us that this is the case.

Even within the prosaic of daily life most things are hidden because we can only detect what is within our biological limits (although we build tools that go beyond this).

6. What is real varies between systems, people and within the self

Same system, different signal

I have written before about what neuroscientist David Eagleman calls the Umwelt, that an organism’s reality is defined by what it senses.

In other words –

  1. I can’t hear a dog whistle, but a dog can
  2. I can’t see ultraviolet light, but a bee can.

My reality is different from that of the dog and the bee.

However these worlds intersect. I blow the whistle and my dog comes back. An undetectable-to-me signal has tangible impact.

Are there other unknowns influencing behaviour? I imagine many.

Think that there are billions of dark matter particles going through you right now. You don’t see or hear or feel them because dark matter does not interact with us in any way we can detect. But it may. We don’t know yet and there aren’t the tools.

Same system, same signal

There’s no need to refer to interspecies examples to confirm that realities differ based on what is perceived.

What I hear varies from what you do depending on our health, the environment (if you don’t protect your ears on the workshop floor) or as we age.

A simple hearing test shows some tones become inaudible as we age, the reality for a 5 and 50-year old doing the test is different — both are right.

I think this should help us move from –

  • I heard it
  • No you didn’t.

To –

  • I heard it
  • I didn’t, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t.

We should not ask others to base their reality on our constraints.

7. We cannot even conceive of what is yet to be asked, making imagination as important as science for progress.

While the amount of data we have would stretch from here to the outer rims of the galaxy, we hardly know anything.

I think then that in relation to the big questions we should be more open and less certain that we are right.

Being openminded is not the same as relativism. It’s not okay to rape a wo/man because your culture says so or to bomb a bus because other people don’t like your God.

Being open-minded does not mean ‘anything goes’.

Nor that a lay view on epigenetics is as informed as that of a person with a PhD on the effect of mutations in genes affecting homologous recombination on restriction enzyme-mediated and illegitimate recombination in Saccharomyces cerevisiae, expert opinion is so for a reason.

Instead, I am suggesting that we should be as wary of unquestioningly deferring to scientific authority as we were once compelled to do with religion.

Ironically, some of the harshest critics of old-style religious dogma share a similar mindset, that is, to claim to know the undisputed truth and scorn those who disagree. I understand their frustration. Ignorance has driven some of the worst behaviours on earth, but so has intelligence. We must find a way to challenge dogma without becoming dogmatists.

Arrogance is arrogance, whether driven by religion, or science, social superiority, greed or ‘just because’.

Don’t dismiss those who ponder the unknown when history suggests, most things are.

The world is not divided into scientific fact on the one hand and a mashup of biased-anecdote on the other. Things are underneath and in between.

We cannot even conceive of what is yet to be asked.

We are constantly beginning again, off a higher knowledge base. This makes imagination as important as science for progress.


Endnote 1

Biologists, physicists and social scientists nowadays challenge a physical description of ‘things’ in favour of dynamics.

In this interesting debate on – What is reality – John Dupré says that when we think of reality we no longer talk about ‘things’ but about stable parts of processes. What something does is more important than what it is; with ‘activity’, ‘happening’ and ‘doing’ as the fundamental constituents of the universe. He says this extends to living beings, who are also processes. For example, the microbes in our body are essential for some of our biological processes, therefore cannot be separated from us.

Head of Particle Theory at Oxford Professor Subir Sarkar says that ‘structure’ is ‘old hat’ and it’s not a case of Russian Dolls where we think of stuff made of stuff made of stuff – but our concern is with dynamics. For example, there is no substructure to the quark, we are interested in the dynamics of quarks.

Philosopher of Science Nancy Cartwright says there are different features or properties of things which engage in different activities and do different things, whether that’s processes or fields or matter – do things and do things by virtue of features they have.

Physicist Lee Smolin talks about the causal theory of views which he described on Edge.org as follows:

An event has a view of the world. First, let me tell you what I mean by a view. A view is the information that that event has about how it fits into the rest of the world. That includes who its parents were (by which I mean the events in its past that gave rise to it) and how much energy and momentum was propagated to it from them. If I am an event, my view of the world is what I see when I look around. I see light comes to me from the past, which I perceive as a pattern of colors, which come from photons of different energies striking my eye. That’s my view; it’s a property of a moment. That contains all that I, as an event, know about how I fit into the rest of the world.

Now, if you know the things that I just said were real—the events, the causal relations, the distribution of energy and momentum flowing—I can tell you what the view of each event is, but I can also flip it around. There’s a dual description in which I just say what the views are and that’s the whole description. So, I just say there’s a view, and that view is that makes a kind of picture. You see the sky, a two-dimensional sphere around you, and there are some colors, which are photons coming in of different energies—that’s the view. I can hypothesize that all that exists in the world is views and a process that continually makes new views out of old views. That’s what I call the causal theory of views.

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