Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Can science explain everything?

A summary of an interesting discussion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science:
There’s a new bully on the intellectual block, shoving scholars around. Lots of them are caving into the threats. The bully’s name is “scientism,” the belief that science has a monopoly on all real knowledge. All other knowledge, scientism asserts, is simply opinion, irrationality, or utter nonsense.

That was the perspective Ian Hutchinson, professor of nuclear science and engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offered at an event titled “Can Science Explain Everything?” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week. Lisa Randall, a professor of physics at Harvard University, had a different take. ....

Science has two key elements, reproducibility and clarity, Hutchinson said. Reproducibility means essentially that an experiment done in one place by one person can be repeated somewhere else by someone else. Clarity refers to the unambiguous nature of science’s measurements, descriptions, and classifications. History is an example of a discipline that has produced real knowledge that is not scientific knowledge, he said. History at its best is based on facts, but historians cannot reproduce Henry VIII’s exploits to find out if accounts of them are true.

Mr. Hutchinson listed other phenomena that may be “true” but that he believes are outside of science’s scope: the beauty of a sunset, the justice of a verdict, or the terror of a war. Many humans may share similar perceptions of these phenomenon but the basis of those perceptions will lack clarity. “Ambiguity is an intrinsic part of these things,” he said. ....

In audience questions after the two talks, one person cut to the chase and demanded “yes” or “no” answers to the evening’s challenge: “Can science explain everything?”

“No,” said Mr. Hutchinson.

“We don’t know,” said Ms. Randall.