HYPOTHESIS, *”THEORY”, THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD &”BeingWrong”**
The gist of the scientific method is that observations lead to hypotheses (which must be testable),
which are then subjected to experiments (whose results must be reproducible).
If all goes well, the outcome is a *theory,
a logically consistent, empirically tested explanation
for a natural phenomenon.
As an ideal of intellectual inquiry and a strategy for the advancement of knowledge, the scientific method is essentially a monument to the utility of error.
Most of us gravitate toward trying to verify our beliefs, to the extent that we bother investigating their validity at all.
scientists gravitate toward *falsification; as a community if not as individuals, they seek to disprove their beliefs.
Thus, the defining feature of a hypothesis is that it has the potential to be proven wrong (which is why it must be both testable and tested), and
the defining feature of a
*theory is that it hasn’t been proven wrong yet.
But the important part is that it can be
[unlike b’LIEf systems such as religion and philosophy or Polluticians’ ASSertions, even law? ;-)]
—no matter how much evidence appears to confirm it,
no matter how many experts endorse it,
no matter how much popular support it enjoys.
In fact, not only can any given *theory be proven wrong; as we saw in the last chapter, sooner or later, it probably will be. And when it is,
the occasion will mark the success of science, not its failure.
This was the pivotal insight of the Scientific Revolution: that the advancement of knowledge depends on current *theories collapsing in the face of new insights and discoveries. In this model of progress,
errors do not lead us away from the truth.
Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it.
During and after the Scientific Revolution, the leading minds of Western Europe took this principle and generalized it. As they saw it, not only scientific theories but also political, social, and even aesthetic ideas were subject to this same pattern of collapse, replacement, and advancement. In essence, these thinkers identified the problem of
error-blindness on a generational and communal scale.
We can no more spot the collective errors of our culture than we can spot our own private ones, but we can be sure that they are lurking somewhere.
The thinkers responsible for this insight came by it honestly. They lived at a time when fifteen centuries of foundational truths had lately been disproved or displaced by a staggering influx of new information: about previously unknown plants and animals, about geology and geography, about the structure of the universe, about the breadth and diversity of human culture. In our own globally intimate, Google-mapped era,
it is almost impossible to fathom the degree of intellectual and emotional disruption all that new information must have occasioned.
I suppose that if tomorrow a UFO landed in Pittsburgh, I might experience a comparable combination of stunning error and thrilling possibility.