Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘Bengt Gustafsson’

Provisional truth – the best science can offer

In Free-thinking, Science on February 28, 2015 at 10:58 am

Prof Bengt Gustafsson

What is truth? It’s a question that has baffled and motivated philosophers for centuries. Before the term ‘scientist’ found its way into the English lexicon sometime in the 19th Century, the study of the natural world was left in the hands – or should that be ‘minds’ – of philosophers. Today’s scientists can therefore trace their lineage back to some of the world’s greatest thinkers whose quarry was the elusive notion of ‘truth’.

So much of which we know about the world around us – what for us is the ‘truth’ – is based on scientific evidence, but the nature of scientific evidence means that that ‘truth’ is, at best, provisional. This was highlighted by Prof Bengt Gustafsson at a recent lecture at the University of Cape Town titled ‘The emergence of true existence in physics, astrophysics and cosmology’. Gustafsson is a Swedish astronomer and emeritus professor of theoretical astrophysics at Uppsala University; but he is also a well-known populariser of science and has published in cross-disciplinary areas including research ethics, social responsibilities of science, science-religion interaction, science policy, science teaching and more.

The lecture room was packed with physicists, astrophysicists, mathematicians and other academics, all of whom are responsible for shaping our knowledge of the world around us. They each hypothesise and rigorously test their hypotheses, before presenting their findings to their peers for critical examination. Their findings are then tested by others keen to find fault for no other reason than to ensure the veracity of science. This process is repeated over and over again across different but associated fields of research until the resultant converging evidence supports a central hypothesis. This then becomes, for the scientists studying it, an acceptable explanation for a phenomenon. Science has a term for this: a scientific theory.

Religious apologists are quick to leap onto the term ‘theory’ suggesting that it means that it is simply an idea, a notion or a premise thrown together by scientists. This is nonsense, and is simply used by religious apologists to ‘justify’ the existence of deities, or what is known as ‘the god of the gaps‘. It is also an ignorant interpretation of the term ‘scientific theory’. Scientists know that what they know is provisional, but that doesn’t mean they doubt what they know. They simply acknowledge that their understanding of our natural world is incomplete, and that science is continually working to know more.

The famous Irish comedian, astrophysics fan and science TV programme host Dara O’Briain puts it best: “If science knew everything, it would stop”.

And that’s the truth.