Maintain A Healthy Skepticism of Science

When I was seven, I visited my grandparents and found a science textbook in the attic. The dated text belonged to my uncle, and I found it fascinating. My favorite chapter was about the future, and it included predictions of what “scientists” expected humans and our environment to be like in the year 2000. Scientists in the 40s and 50s, or at least the authors of this science textbook, believed that by 2000, science would solve most of the world’s problems. The book had drawings of people driving flying cars, standing on moving sidewalks, and harvesting food from hydroponics labs in our homes. They predicted we would all have a Dick Tracy watch. For you young folks, Dick Tracy was a futuristic comic strip detective with a cell phone watch. I think the latest Apple watches surpass the vision of Dick Tracy’s creator Chester Gould.Dick Tracy Watch

I found most of the textbook’s predictions fascinating, especially the phone watch, but one prediction shook me to the core. The textbook’s authors believed that as humans evolved, we would have less and less hair. There was a cartoon-like drawing where the entire family was bald. Wow, that was terrifying. I did not want to be bald and was not interested in having a bald wife. I began to warn all the adults in my life about this impending tragedy, but none seemed too concerned. Then it hit me; none of them worried about this because they would be gone, and I was going to be the one stuck with a bald wife.

Something happened in the late 1960s, and the attitudes of scientists changed. The scientists of the 40s, 50s, and much of the 60s had an overly optimistic belief that science would solve any problem faced by man. By 1970, many scientists became whiny doomsday prophets. Some came to believe man is the problem and not the solution. I was eleven when we celebrated the first earth day, and every school kid in America was bombarded with terrifying predictions about our environment. It was up to us kids; we had to save spaceship Earth. The predictions of a coming ice age and worldwide mass starvations were terrifying. That is right; when I was in school in the 1970s, scientists believed we were headed into an ice age and not facing global warming. In the 70s, scientists claimed the evidence was clear. If we did not take drastic measures, we would all freeze or starve in the coming ice age. I remember dreaming about how I planned to survive with my bald wife and two bald kids. Later, in school, I was taught that almost all scientists agree that we would use up fossil fuels in 20-25 years.

When I was about ten, I told my Papaw, “Papaw, did you know scientists have proven that we evolved from chimpanzees?” He looked at me, grinned, and said, “I know they think they have.” My Papaw loved science and history, just like me. Papaw did not have a formal education, but he read every Reader’s Digest cover to cover and read all the condensed books they published. What he knew about the world was amazing for a man with very little formal education. He loved science but he was also skeptical. In any conversation about science, he often said, “well, we will just have to wait and see.”  

Some in society now demand we accept science as absolute truth. It might be okay if these people would distinguish between scientific knowledge and theory. Today, much of what is passed off as scientific knowledge is simply the prevailing scientific theory. People who question the dominant theory and say, “let’s wait and see,” are painted by society as ignorant fools. If you can say, “most scientists believe…” then whatever comes after that must be true.

This blind faith in prevailing scientific theory completely ignores the fact that throughout history, the prevailing scientific theory has been proven wrong repeatedly. Every new generation of scientists believes they have finally figured out a host of mysteries, only to have their theories shattered or at least rewritten by the next. In the 1700s, doctors thought bloodletting was a good idea, and in the early 1900s, many believed lobotomies might be the cure for some forms of mental illness. When I was in High School, I was taught dinosaurs were killed by a volcano; it was unlikely there were planets like ours in space, and Pluto was a planet. We were taught evolution just like today, but virtually all the factual details have changed. Forget anything you learned in school about Neanderthals before 2000. It was all wrong. Oh, and get this, DNA has also proven that we did not evolve from Chimpanzees. Yes, most scientists still believe in evolution and that we have a common ancestor with Chimps, but DNA evidence has forced text to be rewritten. We did not evolve from Chimps. Neanderthals were not dumb; they did live and breed with humans, and many humans from Europe carry the DNA of Neanderthals.

5-25-23 Update: The Hubble telescope was named for Edwin Hubble. Hubble spent his life trying to prove the Big Bang theory. Early reports indicate that the Hubble telescope has found old galaxies on the outer edge of what we can now see. This discovery is exciting, but based on the current big bang theory, these mature, fully developed galaxies should not be where they are. I suspect a lot of textbooks may need to be “adjusted.” I doubt the Big Bang Theory will be abandoned; it, after all, has its own TV show.

I am now the Papaw in my family, and like my Papaw before me, life has taught me to be skeptical of new scientific theories. In time, many scientific theories and conclusions our children are being taught in school today will be proven partially or entirely wrong. Why do I think that? Because that is the history of science. It is more than that, it is the scientific process at work. It is the very nature of science to challenge and test the prevailing view. Every new generation of humankind believes they have got it all figured out, only to have the next generation come along and prove much of what they thought was only partially correct, or in some cases, just plain wrong. If you don’t believe me, well, let’s just wait and see.

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