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Can Science Ever Be "Settled?" 497

StartsWithABang writes "From physics to biology, from health and medicine to environmental and climate science, you'll frequently hear claims that the science is settled. Meanwhile, those who disagree with the conclusions will clamor that science can never be 'settled,' and then the name-calling from 'alarmist' to 'denier' ensues. But can science legitimately ever be considered settled, and if so, what does that mean? We consider gravitation, evolution, the Big Bang, germ theory, and global warming in an effort to find out."
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Can Science Ever Be "Settled?"

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:14PM (#46429771)

    all attempts to disprove it have failed and until evidence can be presented to disprove or bring the results into question it is settled

    it doesn't mean "this is doctrine never challenge it" it means challenge it knowing that it has been challenged before and the theory has held

    • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:32PM (#46429961)

      A rare scientific law means it is settled.
      For most of them their are theories. the strength of the theory is based on the amount and quality of evidence for it, and lack of evidence that disproves it.

      The issues we are having isn't a problem with the science per-say. But people who religion/political stance is hindered by this science. So they will blame the people who came up with this conclusions as manipulating all their data to come to the conclusion.

      While they are situations where scientists manipulate their data to make their conclusion, however if the peer review is thorough it is usually disproved, or at least found to be not-reproducible.

      The biggest problem is the media posting confusing a hypothesis with a theory. So average joe who doesn't know the difference, see those scientists getting it wrong again!

      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:39PM (#46430021)

        That isn't true. The term law was used in the past with the expectation that certain things were settled. The philosophical underpinnings of science have advanced since then and the term law is no longer used. Some older theories are still referred to as laws for historical purposes however they are theories. Theromes do exist but always with a defined set of starting axioms and therefore a theorome when applied to the physical world becomes a theory.

        • by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:51PM (#46430137) Homepage Journal

          Theromes do exist but always with a defined set of starting axioms and therefore a theorome when applied to the physical world becomes a theory.

          Theorems and theories are two different things. You're quite right, that proving a theorem requires a well-defined set of axioms; the natural world, unfortunately, doesn't provide us with such axioms*, which is why we have to use theories to describe it.

          *Well, maybe. "The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics" argues that maybe there is some axiomatic Truth at the basis of reality. But if so, we have no idea what it is yet, and anyone who tells you they know is lying.

        • The philosophical underpinnings of science have advanced since then and the term law is no longer used.

          By whom? Postmodern philosophers who live on the sidelines of Science and write papers about epistemological impossibilities? There used to be a philosopher called Zeno who believed that motion is impossible. The world ignored him.

          Richard Feynman had a great quote that's quite apt in this regard: "Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds".

          If you're a scien

      • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:53PM (#46430165)

        A rare scientific law means it is settled. For most of them their are theories ...

        The problem most people have is confusing Scientific Theory and pundit "theory" (mind the quotes). The two are not the same -- I even question Commander Data's overuse of the word theory in his many musings. I think he was sometimes a little slack in his application, but that's just a theory.

      • While I agree with the spirit of your post, you may be making the same mistake that you're pointing out.

        Scientific theories don't graduate into laws.

    • Good answer. "Settled" isn't a good word because it implies the end of a process that results in the end of all motion or change. "Well-established" or "well-proven" are more accurate terms but sound like severe understatements in some cases...

      • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

        I prefer "accepted." The accepted theory is the current state of the art in a field, meaning that it is the best description (in a practical makes-useful-predictions way) that we currently have. Accepted theories are constantly tested, and could be wrong in the details or even in broad strokes, but they're the best thing available, and work in a way that has been fairly well explored.

        Of the theories listed in the summary, all are being actively tested and refined today. The only one that really isn't hav

    • Close, but you're kind of going into the area of "after" is declared "Settled" which most would take to mean we're 100% sure... which is not possible. I take it to mean we're 99.99% or whatever sure this is true. We're so sure, if you want to present evidence against it, it better be pretty darn good evidence.

    • settled != True (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Immerman ( 2627577 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:55PM (#46430193)

      Absolutely. Settled doesn't mean True - science is unconcerned with Truth, perhaps even actively opposed to it. Because there is no theoretical way to distinguish between Truth and an extremely accurate and reliable misunderstanding. Accepting something as Truth denies the ability to challenge it - and those challenges are the very essence of science.

      Settled means it has so thoroughly withstood all challenges that nobody much even bothers to challenge it anymore, and you'd better have some really solid new evidence to back any new challenge or expect to be laughed off the stage.

      This is why the vast majority of anti-AGW positions are considered so ridiculous: The studies they're based on are almost universally either so laughably bad as to be obvious paid "science" propaganda, or are so badly misrepresented that the researchers themselves object to the claims being made by the pundits. Meanwhile the handful of potentially legitimate challenges are largely ignored by the media, presumably because they're either so esoteric they can't be expressed in sound bytes, or so outlandish that only other scientists could take them seriously. Unlike the propaganda being fed to the public, the larger climatology community generally treats those challenges with polite skepticism and constructive criticism because they are at least plausible, even if they need a *lot* more supporting evidence before they could be considered viable alternative explanations.

      • Here I have to disagree that AGW is anywhere near "settled" at the level that say Newton's laws of motion are settled. Newton's "laws" within their range of applicability (no quantum, no relativity) have been tested a huge number of times, and are indirectly being tested continuously. Same for special relativity.

        AGW is very likely true, but not at the same level. It is not nearly as well defined: "warming" - is that water temperature, air temperature, total heat content, sea level etc. There is no quest

        • by greenbird ( 859670 ) on Saturday March 08, 2014 @03:34AM (#46433485)

          AGW is very likely true, but not at the same level. It is not nearly as well defined: "warming" - is that water temperature, air temperature, total heat content, sea level etc. There is no question that human activity has *some* impact on climate, but that impact is not completely understood and predictable.

          Nor is tested or even really testable for that matter. There's no way you can do an experiment that even remotely tests man's impact on climate. The systematic interactions of a planet's climate are beyond what we can conceive of, much less understand, right now. The whole of scientific method is positing an idea and then doing experiments that prove and experiments that fail to disprove. Note the later. The scientific method demands attempting to disprove what you posit. Anything less is Cargo Cult Science [] rather than scientific method. This is the problem I see with current climate science. Everything I read is about is science looking for evidence that it's happening and man made. I don't read much of anything about science looking for evidence that it either isn't happening or isn't caused by man.

      • by khallow ( 566160 )

        This is why the vast majority of anti-AGW positions are considered so ridiculous:

        What bugs me about this particular debate is that it focuses on the narrow question of whether there is any AGW effect rather than the more relevant questions of whether the effect is bad enough that we should do something expensive about it. Too often I see arguments and rhetoric where the person advocates AGW mitigation as if the whole argument up to rationalizations for CO2 emission reduction were as strong as the relatively strong evidence and models for some degree of AGW (such as the one dimensional r

    • by ranton ( 36917 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @04:34PM (#46430527)

      My interpretation is that there is enough confidence from the scientific community for anyone who is not a scientist researching the topic to accept the current understanding as fact. It doesn't mean they should think it is a fact, just that they should lead their life and form opinions based on the assumption that it is a fact.

      Research should of course continue, probably until the end of time, but at a certain point the general population should no longer question the findings. They simply are not trained enough to form an opinion that differs from the general consensus.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by hey! ( 33014 )

      There's a big difference between "settled" and "set in stone".

      "Settled" science can be challenged, but you just can't waltz into a field and say, "I have this data which proves that decades (or even centuries) of research are entirely wrong." You have to start with narrow claims and then gradually broaden them. You attack scientific consensus by patiently tugging at loose ends until the whole fabric of consensus starts to unravel.

      Science is, in fact, open to the possibility of perpetual motion or intelli

  • More or less (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BenSchuarmer ( 922752 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:16PM (#46429795)
    Newton's laws have been pretty much settled. Einstein found a way to get more precision under certain circumstances, but Newton is good enough most of the time.
  • Not a summary (Score:5, Informative)

    by oldhack ( 1037484 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:16PM (#46429801)
    That's not a summary, that's a click bait.
  • It will ensure there's plenty of work to do on both sides.

    Where ignorance attempts to shroud the light of reason, the light of reason must endeavour to shine thus more brightly.

  • It is quite well settled scientific fact that those who find themselves at a business disadvantage due to the existence of facts they don't like will immediately lobby for legislation to overturn these silly facts in the interest of being pro-business.

    Short of that, then the next best thing is to create a controversy. Since it is a creative work, shouldn't the controversy be copyrighted? Or even better . . . patented to protect the idea! Or maybe the observations underlying scientific advancement shou
  • Settled (Score:2, Insightful)

    Claiming that a topic is "settled" is, typically, a tactic to shut a viewpoint down as no longer being a live option the community will consider in its collective deliberations.

    At best, this is a necessary pruning tactic, so that old, disproven arguments can't be repeatedly raised. Without some mechanism like this, it would be difficult for groups to proceed when they have a majority, but not unanimous, consensus.

    At its worst, "settled" talk is a rhetorical trick, to shut someone with a potentially valid p

  • by alzoron ( 210577 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:21PM (#46429849) Journal

    It's a process.

  • by deadweight ( 681827 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:24PM (#46429875)
    I think I read there really is no more "chemistry" left to investigate. Apparently it has moved on to molecular physics. Kind of like Newtonian physics are as settled as can be. The bordlines have moved far beyond them by now.
    • It depends on what you mean by chemistry- but I would say far from it as far as practical chemistry is concerned. Sure we can synthesize anything but doing so in an economical fashion is another matter.

      • What I meant wasn't that we can do anything at all with chemicals - it was more along the lines that if you want to expand the borders of "chemistry", the science you are studying has moved beyond classical chemistry into molecular physics.
  • No (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:27PM (#46429909)

    No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.

    -- Albert Einstein

  • I hope not (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:28PM (#46429921)

    For well over a thousand years Aristotle's work in the physical sciences (including zooology) was considered settled... until people started testing his theories

    We called that period the "Enlightenment"

  • You approach closer and close to the "absolute truth", but never get there, and every pi microns there is an e chance that there will be a step function and the whole convergence has to start again.

    And then the cylons show up (;-))

  • People come up with theories, they get refined, debugged, and eventually tagged as a release candidate.

    If the theories seem solid enough, there is a major/product release as something which is solid enough for other people to use in production environments.

    As people keep using it, it gets minor patches/revisions. If people find a serious enough flaw/bug, then people start working on creating another major version release (or competing product.)

    And, just as in software, if the new version of the theory/scie

    • This isn't a very good analogy, unless you're going to constrain it to Free/open-source software.

      In proprietary software, there's new versions every now and then, which both remove useful features and add new feature of questionable value, not because people found flaws or bugs, or because people really needed some new features, but rather because the company behind the software wanted to make more money by selling customers something they already had, and the people writing the software needed to justify t

  • by SillyHamster ( 538384 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:32PM (#46429955)

    Not a result. Thus, attempts to claim that the science is settled are attempts to shut down the scientific process.

    If the results of the scientific process are good, they're reproducible, and there's no point in trying to build up a religious dogma of belief on something that simply is.

    Questioning the "settled science" is science. Shut it down at the cost of shutting down science.

    • by rk ( 6314 )

      As long as questioning the settled science remains "Here's some interesting data that doesn't seem to fit the models. What do you make of this?" and not "The models violate my personal view of the universe and must be untrue." you are absolutely right.

  • A process, not a product?
  • Many things in science are settled beyond any reasonable doubt as false simply because they contradict obvious observed facts. Sorry, Earth is not flat and was not created literally 6000 years ago in literally 6 days.

    • Many things in science are settled beyond any reasonable doubt as false simply because they contradict obvious observed facts. Sorry, Earth is not flat and was not created literally 6000 years ago in literally 6 days.

      Try to pay less attention to Archbishop Ussher. Contrary to popular rumour, most Christians don't pay too much attention to Anglican Archbishops (most Christians aren't even Anglicans, and as far as I know, most Anglicans don't pay all that much attention to their archbishops. especially the

  • The answer is obviously only when we have observed all that there is in the universe, and given the universe is expanding there is that which we never see: so no.

    Once a theory or even a law becomes unfalsifiable its not longer science. Until every observation has been made, it remains possible a contradiction will be discovered. Therefore nothing can ever be settled.

    With that said there are lots of cases like inertia where the evidence in support of it is so strong and so complete; we can reasonably depen

    • Re:Stupid question (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:59PM (#46430235)

      There's also a difference between observations and theories. For instance, gravity is pretty much "settled". However, it's an observation. We always see that objects are attracted to other massive objects; every time we throw something in the air, it falls to the ground. At this point, it'd be stupid to say that gravity doesn't exist.

      However, whyare objects with mass attracted to other objects with mass? That isn't very well understood. We have a theory that describes the relationship (the universal gravitation theory), in a simple equation that tells you the gravitational force given two objects' masses and distance apart. But why is it so? According to Einstein's theories, it's because the spacetime continuum is warped by mass like a rubber sheet, and gravity is just a side-effect of this. According to Quantum Mechanics, particles called gravitons are responsible somehow.

      So we can debate all day about what exactly causes gravity, but the existence of gravity itself is really undeniable at this point.

      Similarly, with evolution, the age of the earth, etc., the theories might be somewhat debatable (but not nearly as much as gravitational theories), the evidence that led to those theories' creation is pretty undeniable at this point, namely fossils and other geological evidence. Claiming the earth is 6500 years old when there's enormous evidence contradicting that claim is just stupid.

  • A common definition of science is "knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study."

    Science is never stable. There is always layer upon layer of detail that is waiting to be discovered. The "Standing on the Shoulders of Giants" is the underlying concept. Our level of scientific understanding is driven by our current understanding and our needs to go deeper. The knowledge can change and grow based on deeper systematic study.

    In the middle ages, when transportation was limited t

  • by TheCarp ( 96830 ) <[ten.tenaprac] [ta] [cjs]> on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:50PM (#46430123) Homepage

    I really liked the way one person put it to me a while back. Some people used to have some idea the earth was flat, but then some people realized that wasn't true and said it was a sphere. Well, that was clearly wrong too but a sphere is a lot closer to the truth than flat; treating wrongness as a boolean would just label them both wrong but, one is clearly a lot less wrong than the other.

    So to some degree, it was settled...possibilities were excluded. Then, well its clearly not a sphere, it bulges in the middle, I have heard "slightly pear shaped" is a good description.... then you have the satellites that have precisely measured variations in gravitational field...they have an even more complex picture.

    Whether it is settled or not depends on to what degree you need the answers.

  • Can "science" ever be settled?

    No, almost certainly not, since that implies perfect knowledge of all existence--all that is, was, or ever could be.

    Can science settle particular questions? Yes.

  • Or to put it another way, if someone feels the need to say "XYZ is settled science" that's a clue that it might not be.

  • by prefec2 ( 875483 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @03:58PM (#46430221)

    You are not really expecting any useful answer to your question? You do not give a definition of what settled means. If it means a theory has been proven right, then by all means science is never settled. See Karl Popper for details. If it means a theory has been proven useful to us to understand a certain aspect of what we call reality, then yes there are many fields in science which are considered settled.

    When I say theory, I mean scientific theory. Not that "theory" which people often use to describe that they have an opinion. If you do not know the difference then see Karl Popper again.

    By the way even in religion there is no absolute truth, as the absolute truth varies between people and over time even in one person. So in general settled is only a vague term used in real life to describe some inter-subjective object of thought which is believed not to change. And in that definition many things in science are settled.

  • speaks to this issue. Here's a link [], and here's their link [] to the essay.
  • by Aviation Pete ( 252403 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @04:16PM (#46430377)
    Many subjects claim to be scientific, but few of them allow to have a base of practically settled laws which is expanded at the fringes. Look at economics: Every time there is a new "law" announced, the economy adapts and changes accordingly to disprove the "law" down the road. A generation ago the perceived wisdom was that unemployment and inflation run against each other. Now we know this is bunk. But economists are too vain to accept that their subject cannot be like Physics or Mathematics. This "real science" envy makes them claim to be scientists, which harms the concept because the public just goes " oohh, see, another scientific law has turned out to be wrong. All science must be wrong".

    Contrast this with the scientific method: This can be applied widely. But do not confuse a solid body of science like in physics with something that changes when being observed. Unfortunately, envy and the limitations of language (add to this the missing understanding in much of what is published) conspire to make real science look bad in the public eye.

  • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Friday March 07, 2014 @04:42PM (#46430601) Homepage

    Not in the traditional sense where you gather everyone involved, hear them out, make a decision and then the matter is settled. In science things are settled when nobody sees a reason to argue anymore, the prevailing theory adequately explains everything in its scope. After all it's mostly mathematical formulas which happen to match the real world, if my contact lenses curve light the way optics say they should what's there to argue? In that sense, I find the resistance to evolution incredible because all it really says is that there'll be more of those who reproduce more and less of those who reproduce less. Sounds to me like a "well, duh" statement, particularly when you look at what we have done with domestication. If you shape the environment, you shape the animals and nature's been doing it much longer than us.

Time to take stock. Go home with some office supplies.