The complicated history of simple scientific facts

Tagged: scientific facts, Technology
Source: Ars Technica - Read the full article
Posted: 4 years 20 weeks ago

Every now and then, the public gets a glimpse at what goes into the making of scientific consensus on an important question. No, we're not talking about the infamous climate change emails—we're talking about how science really comes to its conclusions, a process that involves a few hundred years of work.

Sometimes, even as a person pisses you off, they make a point that you can't ignore. In a recent forum discussion that I was involved in, scientists were accused of making pronouncements from on high. The argument was that scientists jump to a conclusion that seems desirable to them, and then treat it as an infallible truth.

Of course, my initial reaction was to pronounce that I, as a practicing scientist, never make pronouncements. But, looking at my articles from the perspective of someone who really knows absolutely nothing about science—as a practice or as a body of knowledge—I can see how one could see little beyond a list of assertions. The truth is more complicated, of course, but it's a truth that science writers find challenging to convey. Science is impossibly broad, and the leading edge sits, precariously balanced, on a huge, solid, and above all, old body of knowledge. To illustrate this problem, I am going to tell you the story about how the speed of light came to be the ultimate speed limit for the entire universe.

What I want you to remember from this story is that any new fact or change in our understanding sits upon generations of accumulated knowledge. Most of that knowledge is now trusted as "mostly correct," though some of it still lies in the "probably not too badly wrong" category. Sitting beneath that is a body of work stretching back some 6,000 years, some of which is still highly relevant.

My overall point is that, even if I were to extend each of my peer-reviewed articles by some 3,000 words—I already get complaints about the length of some of my articles—I still would not have covered the science of an entire subject. By choosing a starting point for the knowledge described in an article, I really am pronouncing from on high that everything beyond that point is established, trusted knowledge, while everything after that point will be explained to some extent. (READ MORE)