When changing theories challenge scientific reason

Science is not a static state of facts, but a constant flow of change and new ideas.

Science HeaderChangeability is a core tenet of science.  Anyone who loves it, committed to a full four years of it in college or even just bumped up against a module or two would recognise the struggle to keep abreast of the endless stream of new and revised detail that floods the scientific community daily. This is mostly wonderful. Knowledge is constantly refined, ideas and hypotheses changed regularly in accordance with the observable facts. Anyone familiar with science understands that these revisions are a sign of improvement and increasing confidence rather than uncertainty.


However, for those not acquainted with the scientific community, it can sometimes be difficult to understand how this constant updating in response to a plethora of often conflicting results can constitute positive change. It is easy to see how the landscape is muddied for the general public by a stream of ever more sensationalist statements as the information diffuses unchecked from peer reviewed journals down through tabloids and into anecdote. One example of this is the slew of completely conflicting dietary advice that pops up regularly in the media: chocolate is bad for you but also good for you; drinking alcohol will kill you unless it’s red wine which will make you live longer; everything is full of antioxidants which are for some reason good; sugar/gluten/dairy is the true evil of the western diet – the list goes on. Another perhaps more insidious example is the misconception that the well understood and almost universally accepted ideas which science refers to as ‘theories’ are somehow untrustworthy. In many ways this is understandable.


Just a couple of weeks ago, Padgett and Faccio released a paper that showed that the speed of light, a fairly certain constant, could be slowed under extremely specific circumstances. If you’re familiar with the process of research you know that first and foremost, one swallow doesn’t make a season. A single paper with a landmark result is just that, a single paper, which has yet to be fully exposed to the rigorous repetition that takes place before a surprising result becomes an established principle. At first glance it sounds like our knowledge has been turned on its head – and it’s true that such a staggeringly unexpected result has the potential to change a lot of what we think we know.

However, what’s really being presented here is an unexpected, tantalising clue. It’s a hint that we have advanced to the point where our understanding can become so much more refined than what’s passed before. It’s not that everything gets thrown out the window by something unexpected; it’s that whole new avenues open up, windows of enquiry that were previously unimagined or dismissed. It makes us re-examine the things we took for granted and leads to the overall improvement and refinement of understanding that is so completely crucial to so many areas of our development.

Public distrust

Sometimes that can get a little lost in translation, partially due to the technical jargon scattered throughout research papers and partially due to the somewhat exclusivenature of academic journals themselves. A recent poll carried out by the Pew Research Centre highlighted the extent of this misunderstanding on some of the big scientific theories like climate change, evolution and the big bang theory as well as on a variety of topics such GM food and the safety of vaccinations. The results showed that 37% of American adults don’t believe that scientists are generally in agreement that the planet is heating up, while 29% and 52% believed the same in relation to evolution and the big bang respectively. These figures are concerning, especially given that they apply to some of the most widely established theories in science today. This potential for misunderstanding lies at the heart of the mistrust with which some members of the public view the scientific information presented to them. This has a knock on effect in terms of legislation and subsequent public action, particularly in relation to time sensitive issues like climate change or disease containment which simply can’t be dealt with without widespread public co-operation, not to mention adding to the problem of squeezed budgets and insufficient research funding.

The world of science is technical and complex by nature and only becomes increasingly so as our knowledge accumulates. That makes it incredibly easy for science to be kept for the scientists, for the people whose innate interest has helped them develop the rationale and technical jargon necessary to traverse the murky waters of peer-reviewed literature. This is a shame for lots of reasons, not least of which is how incredibly cool and absurd and magical the world we live in becomes when you understand some of what’s going on beneath the surface. Scientists like Neil De Grasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking do their bit in throwing open the closed doors of research to the general public; it might be time the rest of us followed suit.

Illustration: Natalie Duda