Limitations of Science
By El Penski, November 14, 2014, Updated 11/26/2014
Science is a great tool of humanity, and it has solved many well-known problems for us, but I never heard of a grant for research on what scientists do not know in a specific area of science. While no granting institution, not even a nation, could afford a complete study, this void creates problems. People think governments or scientists are withholding information from the public – but they do not know. To fill a vacuum of information and satisfy curiosity, people are impelled to publish reports with speculation, unverified misleading information and to exaggerate the importance of their subject.
Scientists have no reason to admit that they do not know some things. I have rarely heard any professional say, “I do not know.” Conversely, I am an old, disabled retired man that has the time to think about problems that do not produce any money, and I have no fear of admitting ignorance.
Science is humanity's effort to provide a useful, accurate and reliable representation of the world. The main restrictions and strengths of science are based on the details that a theory must be testable and falsifiable and that experiments and observations be repeatable in different places and verified by different independent scientists.
First, science has limitations in the kind of problems it can tackle – as far as I know, it probably cannot ever answer questions like the four following:
Some people claim things like crystals and some life forms are so complex, beautiful, and well-engineered that it is impossible for them to be designed by evolution or to be prearranged by chance. In 1966, the astronomer Carl Sagan proclaimed that there were many trillions of planets in the universe that could support natural life. In 2014, thanks to the Hubble telescope scientists have discovered that odds against life on earth and odds against a non-chaotic universe are unbelievably high. As a result, some researchers conclude that there must have been a creator.1 While some scientists find this a convincing argument when observing the details of nature, on the other hand, if we draw a conclusion from this claim, how does one test the conclusion? What are the boundaries of intelligent design? The only honest thing I can say is at this time, “I don’t know.”
An example of limitations of science is about controversial sky sightings that many people seem to think that science should be able to explain rapidly. Around 36 million pounds of meteoroids and dust hit the earth per year. Many thousands of meteoroids, parts of comets, and space junk, put in orbit by humans, enter the Earth's atmosphere each year in addition to all kinds of radiation and high energy particles from the sun and from billions of sources across the universe. Most of these objects from space sneak in without being noticed, without doing much damage, or with doing unnoticed damage. A few of these random intruders have the potential to be extraordinary and spectacular to witnesses for a few seconds depending on many variables like: velocity, trajectory, size, and composition. Some meteors or parts of comets may not look like classical meteors or comets when in collision with our atmosphere, thus the events are not repeatable and most are not easily verifiable. So nearly all these sightings, like most of life, are very personal events that other people have no experience with. At the same time, governments have many reasons to hide their secret aerial tests over their nations especially when they go awry. With all these abundant possibilities, it is to be expected that pilots and observers see strange things at times. I have seen little evidence that we can predict more than a few of these events. I doubt there is any organization which can keep track of and prove more than a small fraction of such sightings that are unsystematic and scattered over the earth.
Another example is best summarized by the following quote, “Are We Any Closer to Knowing How Many Species There Are on Earth? Are there half a million? 100 Million? After decades of research, there is no consensus.”2 Most of these species have survived for many thousands or millions of years by being very good at hiding.
Consider gravity – gravity holds people down on earth instead flying off into space, keeps our spinning planet from flying apart, and retains our life supporting atmosphere from trickling away. The following quote concisely explains the problem with gravity, “In the early 1990's, one thing was fairly certain about the expansion of the Universe” . . . “gravity was certain to slow the expansion as time went on” but . . . “the expansion of the Universe has not been slowing due to gravity, as everyone thought, it has been accelerating. No one expected this, no one knew how to explain it.”3 As far as I know now, we do not have the slightest understanding about of how gravity works on a universal scale.
If I had the time, I could list many dozens of diseases for which we do not have a cure. For example, there is no cure for old common diseases like common cold, arthritis, allergies, asthma, cancer, glaucoma, hepatitis, herpes, hiv/aids, hypertension, leprosy, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, to name a few. It will take many trillions of dollars to drive them off the earth.
Our giant space listening devices have not heard any sign of intelligent alien life in several decades. Although we like to imagine strange aliens, scientific evidence shows intelligent life must be very rare in the universe and verifiable evidence has not been produced, but the government is still blamed for hiding space aliens.
My observations are that when archaeologists, paleontologists, etc. do a dig, they only publish an article when they find a good large collection of similar artifacts or artifacts that fit together – other artifacts are put on the shelf, forgotten, or thrown out. The same thing could happen if a researcher specialized in one kind artifact like human remains or microscopic fossils. Thus, the overall depiction of the sites are usually omitted. Years later, after looking at several reports, another scientist could conclude that other kinds of artifacts were not present while they are stored somewhere and forgotten. An ideal dig would bring dozens of experts with different specialties to the same dig site to get all the aspects of the same site. This rarely occurs – science, for the most part, is not that well organized.
"Our ancestors came from the forests at some time in their history. Through my long life, I have learned that history and archeology are extremely biased against wet forest regions and forest people compared to dry deserts and desert dwellers – everything decomposes in forests quickly whereas in deserts artifacts are preserved for millenniums. Thus historians and archaeologists have no choice but to ignore forest history and forest people."4 Also, areas where old civilizations did not have stone to build with seem to be less interesting to historians and archaeologists.5
Sedimentation and poor water quality, from erosion, are factors contributing to the over 90% decline in the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster population. We humans have increased global erosion 10-40 times shrinking agricultural output, and causing ecological catastrophe and even desertification in some cases.6 John Boardman has written, "To date erosion scientists have failed to address – or have addressed inadequately – some of the 'big questions' of our discipline." . . . "What should be the response? Can we prevent it?"7
In all of science, the data that does not fit together or not agree with prevailing theories might never be published. Most areas of science are not challenged by anyone mostly because no one has the time and money – most scientific disciplines are very complex. To be honest, unfortunately these practically unavoidable issues are clearly flaws in science.
Consider that science is so very new that nearly all the scientific reports have been written in my lifetime. In summary, bearing in mind these things and that the universe appears now to be infinite in size, we can expect surprising discoveries for millenniums. While humanity has learned considerable information in an amazingly short time and scientists should be congratulated; we still know nearly nothing – we live in an exceptionally complex universe.
People who claim to know everything, are very certain and have all the scientific answers should be doubted whatever high office or credentials they hold. Science has all the blemishes of every human activity: greed, politics, errors and dishonesty; and the history of science unmistakably shows that some advances have unpremeditated harmful consequences. Science research should be funded to test, challenge, and head off the negative consequences of science and errors that are most damaging so we do not have tragic surprises.
Science still advances very well at the present in the majority of areas. Let us humbly enjoy our rapid gains of knowledge and admit our ignorance – we are all just the equivalence of first graders at this time in history.
1Eric Metaxas, Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God, Wall Street Journal, December. 25, 2014
2Geoffrey Giller, Are We Any Closer to Knowing How Many Species There Are on Earth?, Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Inc., April 8, 2014.
3Kristen Erickson (NASA Official), Dark Energy, Dark Matter, Last Updated: Oct. 7, 2014, http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-is-dark-energy/.
4El Penski, The Cunningham Falls State Park Wildland (CFSPW), Documents and Photographs, 1968-1980, Cat Rock and Bob's Hill National Area, Frederick County, MD, USA, http://www.elswildland.us/, 2014.
5Edwin Barnhart, Lost Worlds of South America, The Great Courses, Chantilly, VA, 2012.
6Toy, Terrence J., George R. Foster, Kenneth G. Rennard, Soil Erosion: Processes, Predication, Measurement, and Control, John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
7John Boardman, Soil erosion science: Reflections on the limitations of current approaches, Catena, Elsevier, Vol.68, Issues 2-3, page 73, 2006.
Wendel Shuely and Sheila Richards are due credit for helpful comments.
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