A common discussion with some of my friends is about science and its limits. I’m really concerned with how people understand science nowadays, as if something is true just because it’s scientific. I’m not the first one worried about this, Popper, one of the key figures in defining modern science, used the term “scientism” pejoratively against the dogmatic believe in science. This term, scientism, is widely debated today in science and philosophy.
Science is a really useful tool to understand the world around us. It is useful not only because it explains many things in our world but also because it enables us to build instruments and, sometimes, control a limited part of this world. Who, in his or her own mind, would argue against it? Science has many problems, it’s true. Starting with what can be called “bad science,” people who tamper results to accommodate their own views and many other uses of science that doesn’t accommodate the canon, and continuing with gatekeepers to scientific discovery (journals, communities, associations, governments and even corporations) we can see that science is not perfect. These problems are dealt in a day-to-day basis by researchers and, in the long run, we can see that important discoveries make their way through.
But these problems are just the tip of the iceberg, a problem of implementation more than a problem with the method in itself. Science is a specific way of seeing reality and accepting (or rejecting) statements about it, but it is limited by our cognitive capabilities and senses. A big problem comes when people start mistaking the map for the territory, science for reality. A map is very useful and can include many aspects of the territory it’s representing, but even the most detailed map is not the territory. The same happens with science, it is a good explanation of reality, of how reality works, but it is not reality itself.
The only good model would be reality itself, any other model would leave out some aspects, but I’m not referring to that. As with Magritte’s painting, “The betrayal of images” (the drawing of a pipe with the caption “this is not a pipe”), a model is just how we see the world, one possible representation among many. As a map is limited by our perception of the territory, the tools we use to create this representation and how we read the map afterwards, so is science in its own domain. It’s not a problem of accuracy but of denial, denial that the theory is not how reality actually is or denial that there are other ways of knowing the same object.
To sum this up and leave it open to discussion and further articles, science is a very useful way of understanding the world but it’s limited and provides just one of many interpretations about reality, one that can be observed and experimented with. Not considering its limitations, thinking it’s the only valid or acceptable way of knowing and trying apply it to anything (as philosophy or the arts) is transforming science into a dogma. Science is based on critical thinking, be critical also about science.