Third basemen who make two errors in the second inning are sent back to that position in the third. Defense attorneys who lose a trial are still trusted with a client’s case the next week. And chefs who send out the wrong dish are allowed to serve future customers.
Some persons, however, seem unwilling to extend this redemptive mindset to science. The thinking is that past mistakes from the field mean that any other conclusions it reaches are at least suspect, if not dead wrong.
First off, it’s good to admit when one is wrong and adjust one’s thinking when presented with new proof. But admirable traits aside, the larger issue here is to understand how science works. It is more than beakers, telescopes, and magnetic resonance imaging. It is an unending cyclical process aimed at learning the truth. It is self-correcting, self-criticizing, and invites critical examination. If we knew that all science was correct and complete, lab coats would be traded for swimming suits, and we would retire the field. Instead, there is no settled science, nor is there any all-knowing, all-powerful entity that declares, “This and this alone is science, and that shall never change.”
Indeed, change when justified is what science is all about. A physician may treat a pneumonia patient with antibiotics, which are the consequence of discovering, understanding, and embracing Germ Theory. By contrast, chiropractors still insist that an unknowable entity called Qi is blocked, allowing pneumonia and all manner of other ills to assault our bodies, necessitating spinal manipulation.
Another example of changing positions when justified centers on climate science. A frequent tactic of climate change deniers is to highlight Time and Newsweek articles in 1975 that portended global cooling. There were some scientists who thought global cooling was coming, but there were more who thought this to not be the case. But both camps employed the Scientific Method to arrive today’s consensus that anthropogenic global warming is real. Again, this is not sacred writ and anyone with contrarian evidence is encouraged to submit it to a reputable journal for peer review. Instead, producers of “Climate Hustle” send their findings not to a journal, but to a theatre.
In 1922, Harold Cook found a tooth remnant that he considered part of the the first developed primate discovered in North America. It was dubbed Nebraska Man. Further research and digs revealed that the tooth actually belonged to an extinct pig, and the claim that it was a primate was retracted in the journal Science. Searching for and finding new evidence, then adjusting when warranted, is one of the hallmarks of science. Ken Ham is correct when he says, “Science was wrong about Nebraska Man,” but he fails to follow up with, “Science uncovered the erroneous thinking about Nebraska Man.”
Like all persons, scientists make errors. The difference is that anthropologists are no longer zealously defending Nebraska Man. Meanwhile, Ham says humans were created in their present form 5,000 years ago in a six-day old universe. This position requires ignoring the totality of anthropological, geological, and astronomical evidence.
Another anti-science trope, this one from the anti-GMO and anti-vax throngs, trumpets that science gave us DDT. Besides poisoning the well, this statement is another illustration of failing to understand how science works.
Paul Hermann Muller received the Nobel Prize for discovering how efficient DDT was as an arthropod exterminator. This led to typhus, dengue fever, and malaria being nearly wiped out in Europe. Later science learned the negative impact DDT had on some sea life and birds, among other creatures, and its use was curtailed. DDT is still used to control insect vectors, and it was through the Scientific Method that researchers determined DDT’s value as a pesticide, and then learned of the environmental dangers and what steps were needed to use it safely.
For all their wailing about science, these groups are giving us nothing themselves. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has been around since 1992 without announcing a cure or treatment achieved through alternative medicine. In 40+ years, the Institute for Creation Research has yet to contribute to our understanding of biology, anthropology, or astronomy. Anti-vaxxers have yet to concoct a cure for Alzheimer’s using red sage root and dandelion stems. Climate change deniers level charges of hoaxes, false data, and criminality, but have contributed just two of the more than 13,000 peer-reviewed papers on the subject in the last five years.
Meanwhile, genuine science is providing you air-conditioned comfort and freedom from polio as you read this on your iPod.