False Science and Its Effects

What a bloody boring title, eh? Here is what it means.

Today I read a portion of Burroughs’ “Signs and Seasons” in which he praised perfect observation. It was actually an interesting passage, politely mocking the ancients who possessed strange notions about the meanings of various natural signs or occurrences. Burroughs wondered how they arrived at their odd conclusions about the workings of the honeybee, for example, when mere attentive observation should have shown them such theories were wrong. He praises observation as if it always leads to truth; and he declared that failure to focus in observation will lead to “false science.”

I thought of this phrase just now as I readied myself for sleep. I wondered to myself: if there is such a thing as “false science,” what does it lead to? Not to false facts, for “facts” (as we generally use the term) applies to true things only. We might better say that it usually leads to “false assumptions,” which are as easily labeled “false beliefs.” (I say usually because we might as well admit that what specialists in the field would characterise as “false science” has, on occasions, actually led to true things. So cheers to you false scientists out there.)

So science leads to beliefs. This conclusion would likely make a scientist’s Bunsen burn, but it seems an accurate statement. A botanist studies a pear tree exhaustively, season upon season, and following years of toilsome observation, he declares that given good weather the flowers will soon turn to fruit upon its boughs. So let me ask: is this a fact? or is it a belief? Most of us would like to say it is a certain fact, but it is not so certain. Simply because something happens three hundred thousand times in a row does not guarantee the next spring will prove the same. To borrow a Chesterton argument, why should the pear tree not suddenly begin to produce olives, or celery? How do we really know the why which makes it so?

Alongside these questions, I begin to wonder: how many layers of observation, from how many independent sources, will turn his statement from a personal belief into a full-fledged “fact”? What are facts??

I believe I ought to go to sleep. As a matter of fact, I will.

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