Why Doubt Is Essential to Science

Liv Grjebine at Scientific American: “The confidence people place in science is frequently based not on what it really is, but on what people would like it to be. When I asked students at the beginning of the year how they would define science, many of them replied that it is an objective way of discovering certainties about the world. But science cannot provide certainties. For example, a majority of Americans trust science as long as it does not challenge their existing beliefs. To the question “When science disagrees with the teachings of your religion, which one do you believe?,” 58 percent of North Americans favor religion; 33 percent science; and 6 percent say “it depends.”

But doubt in science is a feature, not a bug. Indeed, the paradox is that science, when properly functioning, questions accepted facts and yields both new knowledge and new questions—not certainty. Doubt does not create trust, nor does it help public understanding. So why should people trust a process that seems to require a troublesome state of uncertainty without always providing solid solutions?

As a historian of science, I would argue that it’s the responsibility of scientists and historians of science to show that the real power of science lies precisely in what is often perceived as its weakness: its drive to question and challenge a hypothesis. Indeed, the scientific approach requires changing our understanding of the natural world whenever new evidence emerges from either experimentation or observation. Scientific findings are hypotheses that encompass the state of knowledge at a given moment. In the long run, many of are challenged and even overturned. Doubt might be troubling, but it impels us towards a better understanding; certainties, as reassuring as they may seem, in fact undermine the scientific process….(More)”.