Limitations of science

On a recent post about science, one of the persons commenting brought up some reasonable points about science.

But demonstrating bias highlights other problems in modern American discourse – i.e., the false conclusiveness we give to science, and the false distinction we ascribe to it. Science demands repeatable observation to correct bias, but it can’t correct these problems beyond itself.

While I do not agree with every word in his entire comment (only part of which is quoted above), there is a good point brought up. The scientific methods has its limitations. The problem is not that science has its limitations, but that every field of human endeavor has its limitations. There is actually a field of philosophy that deals with limitations in knowledge. That field is called epistemology:

Epistemology (from Greek episteme, “knowledge, science” + logos, “reason, word”) or theory of knowledge is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope (limitations) of knowledge.[1] It addresses the questions:

  • How do we know what we know?
  • What is knowledge?
  • How is knowledge acquired?
  • What do people know?
  • OK, so given that every field has its limitations, what are the limitations of science? Well, let me quote from an university lecture, then add a couple of thoughts of my own.

    • Science can’t answer questions about value.
    • Science can’t answer questions of morality.
    • Finally, science can’t help us with questions about the supernatural.

    The lecture points out that the reason that science cannot answer questions about these areas is that these are questions that cannot be tested. Science qua science can only deal with the answer to things that can be tested, although that is too general an answer. Science can sometimes deal with things that are tested indirectly. As an example, in both quantum science and Einstinian physics, there are several of the details of those types of physics that can only be tested indirectly, for instance by the decay products of nuclear collisions in an accelerator.

    Interestingly enough, the lecture points out that there are many scientists who have forgotten their limitations and make pronouncements outside of the areas which science can answer. One needs only think of popularizers such as Carl Sagan or militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins to see that happening. This would be the opposite of those who try to inject charges of cultural bias, or political bias, or etc., into every scientific discussion, as though those charges had meaning independent of their own biases. I dealt with this in earlier postings.

    The person whose post I cited at the beginning of this post was absolutely correct in saying that science cannot help you to choose a set of policies to deal with their results. Let me give you an instance. Dr. Edward Jenner discovered a vaccine against smallpox in 1796 and published his findings in 1798. By 1979, smallpox was eradicated as a disease to be feared. However, it was the job of politicians around the world to implement the laws necessary to make sure that all their citizens were vaccinated. It took a long time.

    Science can also warn you about the effects of certain non-scientific decisions. For instance, the rising rate of both mumps and measles in the USA is the predictable result of the increasing number of parents refusing to vaccinate their children. Science cannot force vaccinations, only politicians can. But science can observe and measure and extrapolate (make a prediction) based on its observations. And, when a child dies from an easily preventable disease because the parents based their decision on a bad understanding of science or a personal religious belief, science can only stand by, tally the result, and confirm that the result fits into their predictions.

    But, because scientists do not live isolated lives, it will not be surprising if that scientist feels an intense sense of frustration and ends up deciding to become involved in a vaccination crusade. He or she is not joining the vaccination crusade as a scientist, per se, but is joining it as a concerned human being who holds certain ethical and moral beliefs. The other side of this is that because all societies hold to some type of ethical belief system, their belief system will often put at least some limitations on the type of research that scientists may do. For instance, we now consider it unethical and immoral to do medical research on unwilling and/or unknowing human subjects. But, that was not always true in our country, and it most certainly was not true in several other countries.

    Thus, if the vaccination case I cited is that of a scientist’s personal beliefs driving him/her into social action, then the second case is that of a society’s ethical beliefs limiting the ambit within which science may experiment. Of the two, the second case is the one that is most often heavily debated. On the one side, there are items such as the Galileo controversy and the fact that autopsies were forbidden by law in Europe, which kept medical science from advancing for several centuries. On the other side are items such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment and the vivisections performed by the medical establishment in WWII German “final solution” camps. Please note that both the Tuskegee and the German experiments were government approved, financed, and run experiments.

    I trust that all this discussion may help you to see both the limitations of science,  but also the limitations of other disciplines, and of societies.


    1. Ingemar says

      A culture of scientism frightens me. I say this as a worker in the biotechnology field. There are some out there that say that since science and materialism say nothing about morals and values, then that means that the latter really don’t matter. One person I met online say that morals and values are harmful to scientific progress and therefore must be done away with.

      There is a reason why the “Mad Scientist’ trope exists.

      The scary thing? This hard core atheistic science fetishist used to be an Orthodox seminarian. Truly, the snares of the Enemy are strong.

      Note, again, that I work in the biotech community so I am not anti-science. My point is that without morals (and preferably, Christian morals), “science” can be hijacked to bring about the commodification of all of nature and humanity.

      • says

        Yes, this is why my last paragraph talks about the interaction between ethics and science. That is actually another whole post. What I found interesting was that the college lecture that I cited, itself pointed to those scientists who had overstepped their bounds. And, it is not a “religious” college. So, even among secularists there is a growing recognition of the dangers of scientism.

    2. says

      Asserting any “-ism” as the ultimate guiding principle of human life is scary. Whether it’s scientism, modernism, or even humanism. And it’s because you’re exactly right – everything has limitations. So surrendering completely to any mode of pursuit is inadequate – we overstep our bounds when we do so.

      Personally, I think exploring the harmony of science, ethics, religion is more interesting than picking apart this or that scientific theory.

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