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Science is ‘merely’ an opinion

By Dr Peter Hoeben

As Daniel P. Moynihan once said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

We regularly hear people resorting to opinions and perceptions rather than relying on scientific facts and theories. This is not a new trend, it was once ‘fact’ that the world was flat. But we are seeing the trend re-emerge and the commonly accepted integrity of science is in doubt. It is comparable to arguing with a car mechanic on how to fix your car. Unless you are a car mechanic yourself that would seem foolish. Or to challenge a surgeon about the surgical procedure you need. Yet believing that the subjective interpretation of news, websites or biased reporting somehow surpasses well-established scientific theories and practice can be dangerous. When you are a trained scientist, you may be able to understand the data, and try to refute the findings. But a scientist is well aware that she/he must accept established theories. Theories that can be tested and used to predict events, opinions do not have those characteristics.

Science is an independent process that has a set of rules and methodologies to establish what is true. It does so by a rigorous, logical and peer-reviewed process. Science is based on tried and tested processes that lead to new findings and hypotheses. It generates shared objective knowledge. More importantly, it corrects itself constantly. That is one of the strengths of science. Theories are challenged, finetuned, overthrown or accepted on the basis of observations, experiments and peer review. To dismiss something because it is ‘just‘ a theory is showing that you have not understood the nature of science. A theory is the best possible explanation, a set of laws, or a model that has predictive power. It defines and predicts what should happen when tested. Most people would not hesitate to get into an aeroplane and that aeroplane is able to fly because of applied scientific principles. Nobody challenges the scientific theories of flight. Yet many science sceptics challenge other theories with similar applications and predictive power.

Science and education have an obligation to remain objective to seek and generate truth, and to adhere to a shared and established knowledge base. A better understanding of the scientific principles would be in everybody’s interest. Anyone should be able to comprehend and question discoveries and predictions reported in the news, or on the web. Apart from some first-year university courses, most secondary curricula lack a course that develops such an understanding. The secondary curriculum would be the last chance to gain such expertise and life-long skills. It would be especially useful for the students whose talents lie in the humanities or liberal arts and who choose non-science degrees. The IB has recognised and identified the need for this type of course. A few years ago, it asked a group of academics and teachers to write a new Diploma Programme (DP) course which would teach students the scientific principles and educate them about the great scientific discoveries. The new course is called: Nature of Science, and is now in a pilot stage offered in 20 schools in North and South America, the Middle East, the Far East and Europe.

Dr Hoeben is a biochemist and used to be a research scientist and a lecturer in Philosophy of Science. He is also Examiner responsible for Nature of Science and a consultant for school services in Africa, Europe and Middle East.