“Our scientific theories are ultimately all untrue”

“Our scientific theories are ultimately all untrue”

Studium Generale Lecture: How authority of science is evaporating

12-04-2022

Is the authority of science evaporating? Louis Boon, emeritus professor of Philosophy of Science, pondered over this question during the lecture by Studium Generale last Thursday. The answer: in certain groups it is, but that fact is as old as science itself. Moreover, says Boon: “our lives are soaked in science and nobody can change that.”

There is a cartoon on the screen showing a group of people with cows emerging from every orifice. It is criticism of the smallpox vaccination programme from the 19th century. Why cows? The idea for the vaccine came from the observation that people who had survived the milder cowpox (milkmaids, for example) were also better protected against the much deadlier known variant. “That political cartoon is on exactly the same level as thinking that Bill Gates had a chip implanted in you via the Covid vaccine,” says Boon. Whether it is the religious conviction that God is above science or the idea that researchers are influenced by those in power, “there will always be people who resist science.”

Common sense

That is very logical too, says Boon. “Science always beats one’s wildest fantasies. It comes with explanations that initially may seem unlikely or far-fetched.  This lectern is hard, you can feel that, you can know that. According to science, that is because there is a world of molecules behind it. In science, it is often about what is hidden, about what you cannot see. For a long time, the theory was that illnesses were caused by poisonous vapours. That was logical; in the poorer parts of the city, where people were sick more often, there were also many more evil-smelling odours. But the theory of bacteria and viruses goes far beyond our common sense.”

That common sense also tells us that real knowledge is something that is sure and true, according to Boon. “Science does not meet those conditions in any way. Science is by definition unsure and practically all our theories eventually appear to be untrue.” What it is about, says Boon, is that scientists work with the best that is available at the time. That is what they get to work with, to further improve it. “Science gets us further, but it is also a product of a particular time, culture and society.”

Radical equality

What has not always been around, but is a rather new development is a “more and more radical equality. Agricultural societies were built on differences between societies, they were accepted. In industrial society, we are so alike that a paradox has been created; the small differences that still exist are becoming more and more unbearable. This all comes under the heading of diversity and inclusivity. Pointing out those differences is now no longer seen as criticism but as a disease. Anyone who criticises strangers, suffers from xenophobia, anyone who questions the ideas regarding gender is transphobic. They need to be cured of their phobia.”

But, says Boon, science may be diverse but it is not inclusive. “Not everyone has the brains to devote themselves to physics. That is only reserved for a small group, most people soon realise that this is not where they will succeed. Something like Recognition and Rewards – everyone has contributed – denies that difference. The idea that one cannot do everything, is very hard for people to grasp.”

Perception

According to Boon, the “radical equality idea” is closely related to another trend: everything is a story. “During COVID-19, we could see this, for example, with the ‘Moederhart’ movement, which says it doesn’t feel right to vaccinate. Not based on any knowledge, purely on instinct, a perception. This perception is becoming increasingly more important, because we are replacing knowledge with information. Information is something you look up, knowledge is something you have internalised. Students want to read something only once. Otherwise you get: we did that with the last tasks. People are no longer making the text their own. These days, you search for information, you read it and you perceive it. ‘How do I perceive that’ is the only thing that remains. That is why students only awaken when the theme is about something they can perceive. When it is about slavery, they come alive, that is something they can feel an emotion with.”

In this way, says Boon, science also becomes “one of the many stories. People don’t understand, for example, that research is always trying to overthrow its own theories. Then it is only an opinion and you can also have a different one. But that is not what it is about. It is the realisation that ultimately everything is always untrue, but you can work with what you have now and try to improve it.”

The lecture can be rewatched here (in Dutch).

Author: Cleo Freriks

Photo: Joey Roberts

Tags: lecture,louis boon,studium generale,philosophy,science,research,trust,covid-19,vaccines

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