We are all wrong at times – usually a lot more often than we think, or are happy to acknowledge. But the only person who doesn’t make a mistake is the person who is not doing anything – and that is a mistake in itself. Humanity didn’t get where it is today by refusing to act on our best knowledge – even when realising that our knowledge is inevitably imperfect.
So why do people sometimes resort to the argument that science has made mistakes? They certainly cannot suggest a better alternative. I can only conclude they do this to attack a current scientific consensus they disagree with. A pathetic argument but one often used. Particularly by people who don’t have a scientific leg to stand on.
The trope of scientific mistakes
The Skeptical Raport put it this way in a recent article (Debunking the “mistakes science made” tropes?:
“The antivaccinationists, creationists, anthropogenic global warming deniers, and whomever else pretends to use science to actually deny science frequently focus on a trope covering the mistakes science made. And then they produce a list of historical events that “prove” that science is wrong. Of course, this indicates more of a misunderstanding of what is science and the history of science than it is a condemnation of science. But your typical science denier is probably not going to let facts get in the way of maintaining faith in their beliefs.”
The article spends some time discussing the nature of scientific knowledge and the scientific method. It states:
“Yes, science does find errors, all the time. In fact, one of the goals of the scientific process is precisely what defines scientific skepticism, a term frequently co-opted by science deniers, which is a process of evaluating a claim based on the quality and quantity of evidence supporting that claim. A real scientist (or scientific skeptic) is looking for errors, because it is a part of the process.”
The excitement of finding a mistake
Working scientists will know the excitement that comes with finding one’s first ideas have been proven wrong by experiment. Or that we can show that a published scientific idea has just been destroyed by our experiment. Mistakes and incorrect hypothesis are exciting when we find them because they open the door to a better, more complete, knowledge that we can be responsible for.
This searching for, and discovery of, mistakes is an important driver for the improvement of scientific knowledge:
“Because science is not based on dogma or faith, it is self-challenging and self-critical, uncovering errors is part of the process that makes good science. And science is unbiased. The proper method of science is not to invent a conclusion, then find evidence that supports it. It actually works by gathering all of the evidence, deciding which is high quality and which is junk, then determining where that evidence leads.
“And as opposed to science deniers, who think that they have the one truth, real science makes mistakes and uncovers it rather rapidly.”
‘Smoking is healthy’ myth
The article goes on to discuss several examples used by those who wish to claim that science is often wrong. I will only deal with the “Science said smoking is healthy” myth – it is one often used by anti-fluoride and anti-vaccination campaigners. The article says:
“But really, did any real scientist claim that smoking was healthy? Smoking tobacco was prevalent through the native American tribes well before the advent of modern science. There was no Native American CDC, FDA or Board of Physicians to approve the use of tobacco as “safe and effective.”
In fact, those Native Americans and Europeans who picked up the habit believed in all kinds of nonsense about tobacco, including that it cured cancer. This wasn’t “science” pushing these beliefs, but it was the traditions of the world at the time that put inordinate faith in various herbs and how they could cure various maladies. In fact, thinking smoking or tobacco was healthy was advertised by the woo-pushers of the time (who are barely different than the woo-pushers of the modern world).
An article in The Lancet in 1913 warns “that tobacco smoking can give rise to constitutional effects which diminish the resisting power of the body to disease”
“By the 1930’s, real science observed the increase in lung cancer from smoking. The Nazis banned cigarette smoking in the 1930’s because of the known health effects. . . . In 1950, the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article by Martin Levin that linked smoking and lung cancer. By the mid-1950’s, numerous epidemiological studies showed a profound increase in lung cancer risk for smokers. The Royal College of Physicians (UK) warned against smoking in 1962. The Surgeon General of the USA warned against smoking in 1964. The CDC has warned against smoking for over 50 years.”
“Yes, tobacco advertisers used to make ads that showed doctors smoking, or worse, endorsing cigarettes. But that wasn’t the “science” of the time. Big Tobacco (a truly evil lot of characters) said just about anything to get people to smoke, whether it was showing doctors smoking or that smoking made you sexy. But they weren’t using peer-reviewed science, these ads were worse than anecdotes, because they were outright lies and mis-characterizations. Science had already concluded that cigarettes were unhealthy a half century before those ads.”
“Once real epidemiological studies were published in peer-reviewed journals, the attitude about smoking changed almost immediately in the medical and general scientific community. And that’s how real science works–it self-corrects.”
As the author says of this particular myth:
“As a suggestion to the science deniers–quit using this trope. It shows how ignorant you are of history, the scientific method, and reality.”
Blaming science for the errors of others
Often these myths about scientific errors boil down to inability to see who made the real errors. The article quotes Emily Willingham who wrote the following about science in an article in Forbes:
“That said, other ways of viewing of our world clearly carry greater weight for people than science or evidence does. If evidence and data were the only factors in human decision-making, the epic debates humans engage in about whether vaccines eradicated smallpox or whether global climate change is real wouldn’t exist. Even though science is the ultimate lens for truly understanding what underlies our entire existence, we obviously use other, frequently more myopic lenses available to us.
And that leads me to the faults of science. Humans do science, and because we bring our own personalized lenses and biases to whatever we do, science will involve error. But the wonderful thing about science is that it’s a self-correcting process that over time, disciplines itself. How did we discover the real effects of tobacco or DDT that ultimately were revealed? Science made those revelations, and science provided the data everyone needed to know the truth.”
Let’s acknowledge up front that science makes mistakes. But let’s also acknowledge that anti-science campaigners are using these myths inappropriately – blaming science for social mistakes made by governments, business interests or other opinion drivers in society.