Settled Science

Occasionally I will hear that some issue is “settled science.” Often it’s in the context of some controversial topic such as climate change. The consensus among climate scientists is that climate change is real and man-made. They tend to dismiss skeptics as mistaken or ignorant. Sometimes, someone will say that this is “settled science.”

This is incorrect. There is no such thing as “settled” science. The expression is simply a way for someone to end discussion about a topic.

The whole point of science – what distinguishes science from other endeavors – is that in properly conducted science, there is no dogma. There is no theory or “law” that is so sacred that it is beyond all question.

Take, for example, the so-called “laws” of thermodynamics. These are a set of statements that are so consistent, so clear, that they’re called “laws.” Actually, they are theories. It is possible in principle that some day, exceptions may be found to these laws, and then they will have to be modified.

Over the years, many efforts have been made to circumvent these rules, to find ways to basically get something from nothing. Thousands of people have tried. Success would probably make a person extremely wealthy. There is a huge motivation to find ways to get around these laws. So far, all efforts have failed.

If someone claims to have found a way to break one of these laws, most likely he will be ignored. There have simply been too many people who have made this claim for scientists to take it seriously. It would take a huge demonstration to get anyone to change his mind.

If for some reason scientists begin to take the claim seriously, they will likely spend a huge amount of time and effort looking for the flaws in the experiment. Chances are overwhelmingly in favor of there being some mistake or fraud. Scientists would have to be able to replicate the experiment themselves, before they’d even begin to consider the possibility. For all intents and purposes, the laws of thermodynamics are “settled science.”

And yet, they are not absolutes. If someone finds a loophole, if they manage to create an exception to the “laws,” then science will have to revise the laws to account for that exception. It would cause a scientific revolution as major as Relativity or Quantum Theory.

In properly conducted science, there is no dogma. There are no absolutes that are forever beyond question. There is no settled science. Everything is always subject to revision, clarification, or even rejection.

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