There was so much I learned from talking to biologist Robert Trivers and reading his book The Folly of Fools, but there’s only so much room in the column. The part that caught the attention of readers the most was the end, which prompted questions such as this one:
On what basis can these academics – Trivers and Kurzban – confidently pronounce that “However fallible individual scientists may be… science is a self-correcting process…Over the long haul . . . falsehood has no chance, which is why over time science tends to outstrip competing enterprises.”?
Are they relying on truth-tellers? Or on integrity? Or on a “healthy” “self”, which “corrects” “itself”? Or on a combination, thereof?
But how could they possibly justify such reliance given their beliefs that:
- “evolution has shaped many organisms into natural-born liars”
- “Academics [which includes scientists] are particularly deluded”
- ‘evolution clouds our vision’
- “there’s no such thing as self-deception because there is no true single self to deceive” [and no self to correct]
- “Neither Kurzban nor Trivers could explain integrity or how it fits into their different frameworks”
I really don’t get it.
Dr. Trivers gave an answer, and in doing so offered a good way to dimiss that increasingly annoying statement that science is just another form of faith.
It’s not just that scientists base their findings on evidence. That’s important but it’s also fraught with error on an individual level because scientists don’t always know reality when they see it. Scientists are human and can be led astray by self-deception, egomania or stubbornness. And they can feed off each other’s erroneous notions, allowing whole fields to veer away from reality.
And yet, despite the fallibility of its individual practitioners, science has power. Einstein’s theory predicted how starlight would bend around an eclipse, and now physicists have predicted that a machine at CERN will produce a very specific signal indicating the presence of a particle called the Higgs boson. No other endeavor can make such accurate predictions – not astrology, not religion, not fortune cookies. When has anyone correctly predicted the second coming? Or the apocalypse?
How does science get this power when individual scientists are so subject to self-deception? Trivers explained this by the fact that the whole enterprise corrects itself in the long haul. Science is the biggest collective human endeavor of all time. Scientists all over the world work on the same problems, follow the same rules and use the common language of mathematics. They test each other’s experiments, and correct wrong results with new ideas and observations.
Science isn’t supposed to be perfect, or to answer every question. If that were the case there would be no reason for the government to fund any more research. But science does advance, and in doing so brings us more powerful technology. Science may never explain everything, but over the course of years and decades, it peels back more layers of the unknown.