When people think about science, they think about exact and certain truths. Usually referred to as “facts”, these truths are considered as things that can be proven beyond questioning. Sometimes these “truths” are strongly defended with an even stronger term: “scientific fact”. There is something tragically ironic about these terms. Unlike mathematics, science proves nothing in the sense that the public assumes it can.
One of the most commonly known and understood physics theories is gravity. Almost everybody agrees with this theory in its entirety. Its consequences are immediately testable, even though humankind really had a bad understanding of it for many millennia. Of course, the Newtonian theory of gravity has some limitations under some unfamiliar physical conditions. Most people know this too. Even ignoring the issue of Einsteinian physics rules, the concept of a proven theory of gravity has a glaring problem from an epistemological perspective.
Let us consider how the theory is hypothesized and tested. We can assume that there is a gravitational acceleration acting on everything with a mass and use this to explain their motion. If we let go of an apple, we assume, it will start to accelerate towards the center of the world. We call this dropping. The problem with this assumption is that however many times we test this theory, there is no guarantee that the next time it will work exactly the same way it did the last time. We are collecting some data and attempting to detect a pattern in our observations. Later we are hoping that these trends will inform our future predictions. From this epistemological perspective, science cannot be proven. It can only give a reasonable and honest prediction of the rules of the universe.
Realizing this problem can lead to an uneasy feeling. Most people cannot even understand that we cannot know anything with complete certainty maybe with the exception of mathematical constructions. We have to accept the limitations of our observations, our sensory organs, and our ability to think and remember.
The stochastic nature of positive epistemology is one of the reasons behind the public backlash against changing medical rules and recommendations. People falsely assume that medical doctors must know everything with complete certainty. Then, they hear that they changed their recommendations on certain issues. This creates a feeling of shock and anger against the doctors because they did not live up to public perceptions. To be fair, medicine as a field never pretends that they can know anything with complete certainty. Certain individuals who speak under the umbrella of medicine might act like they are more certain and exact than they can be.
The beauty of science is its ability to salvage a partial and incomplete truth out of this uneasy mess. Just because we cannot know everything about something does not mean we do know nothing about it either. We are constantly learning and surely getting closer to a more complete and accurate truth. However, we must accept that there is no end to this pursuit. We will always need to make assumptions, simplifications, generalizations, etc. to say something honest and useful about the nature of the universe and everything it contains.