“The Reliability of Science Is Based” on Free Speech

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli’s argument should be pondered by global warming and Covid scientists who want to censor and cancel those with whom they disagree. They should also read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

(p. C5) Science is a process that builds upon existing theories and knowledge by continuously revising them. Every aspect of scientific knowledge can be questioned, including the general rules of thinking that appear to be most certain.

. . .

Consider a folk healer’s herbal medicine. Can we say this treatment is “scientific”? Yes, if it is proven to be effective, even if we have no idea why it works. In fact, several common medications used today have their origin in folk treatments, and we are still not sure how they work. This does not imply that folk treatments are generally effective. To the contrary, most of them are not. What distinguishes scientific medicine from nonscientific medicine is the readiness to seriously test a treatment and to be ready to change our minds if something is shown not to work.

Exaggerating a bit, one could say that the core of modern medicine is not much more than the accurate testing of treatments. A homeopathic doctor is not interested in rigorously testing his remedies: He continues to administer the same remedy even if a statistical analysis shows that the remedy is ineffective. He prefers to stick to his theory. A research doctor in a modern hospital, on the contrary, must be ready to change his theory if a more effective way of understanding illness, or treating it, becomes available.

. . .

What makes modern science uniquely powerful is its refusal to believe that it already possesses ultimate truth. The reliability of science is based not on certainty but on a radical lack of certainty. As John Stuart Mill wrote in “On Liberty” in 1859, “The beliefs which we have most warrant for, have no safeguard to rest on, but a standing invitation to the whole world to prove them unfounded.”

. . .

There is no secure method for avoiding error. Our point of departure is always just the ramshackle, error-filled totality of what we think we know. But uncertainty does not make knowledge worthless. If our theory is contradicted by experiment, this remains a real fact, solid as rock, even if we don’t yet know with clarity where our mistake lies. The fact that the assumptions in our reasoning can be mistaken doesn’t change the fact that scientific reasoning is our best cognitive tool.

For the full essay, see:

Carlo Rovelli. “The Best Reason to Trust Science.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 11, 2023): C5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the essay has the date March 9, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)

Rovelli’s essay quoted above is based on his book:

Rovelli, Carlo. Anaximander and the Birth of Science. New York: Riverhead Books, 2023 (2011).

Mill’s wonderful defense of freedom, mentioned above, is:

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty and Other Essays, Oxford World’s Classics. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2008 (1859).

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