Science—Mankind’s Ongoing Search for Truth
“YOU will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) These oft-quoted words of wisdom were spoken by a man whom millions view as the greatest man who ever lived.a Although the speaker was referring to religious truth, in certain respects truth in any field of activity can set people free.
Scientific truth, for example, has freed people from many false ideas, such as that the earth is flat, that the earth is the center of the universe, that heat is a fluid called caloric, that foul air causes epidemics, and that the atom is the smallest particle of matter. The practical application of scientific truths in industry, as well as in the fields of communication and transportation, has freed people from unnecessary drudgery and, to a degree, from the limitations of time and distance. Scientific truths applied in preventive medicine and health-care have helped free people from premature death or a morbid fear of disease.
Science—What Is It?
According to The World Book Encyclopedia, “science covers the broad field of human knowledge concerned with facts held together by principles (rules).” Understandably, there are various kinds of science. The book The Scientist claims: “In theory, almost any kind of knowledge might be made scientific, since by definition a branch of knowledge becomes a science when it is pursued in the spirit of the scientific method.”
This makes for some difficulty in defining, with any precision, where one science begins and another ends. In fact, according to The World Book Encyclopedia, “in some cases, sciences may overlap so much that interdisciplinary fields have been established that combine parts of two or more sciences.” Nevertheless, most reference works speak of four main divisions: physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, and the science of mathematics and logic.
Mathematics a science? Yes, without some unified method of measurement, some way of determining how large, how small, how many, how few, how far, how near, how hot, and how cold, productive scientific investigation would have been impossible. So not without reason, mathematics has been called the “Queen and Servant of the Sciences.”
As for physical sciences, these include chemistry, physics, and astronomy. The main biological sciences are botany and zoology, while social sciences include anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, and psychology. (See box on page 8.)
A distinction must be made between pure science and applied science. The former deals purely with the scientific facts and principles themselves; the latter, with their practical application. Today applied science is also known as technology.
Learning by Trial and Error
Religion and science are both examples of mankind’s desire to know the truth. But there is a significant difference between how religious truth is sought on the one hand and scientific truth on the other. A searcher for religious truth will probably turn to the Holy Bible, the Koran, the Talmud, the Vedas, or the Tripitaka, depending on whether he is a Christian, a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, or a Buddhist. There he will find what is considered by his religion to be a revelation of religious truth, possibly deriving from a divine source and therefore viewed as a final authority.
However, the searcher for scientific truth has no such final authority to turn to—neither a book nor an individual. Scientific truth is not revealed; it is discovered. This necessitates a system of trial and error, with the searcher for scientific truth often finding himself in a fruitless endeavor. But by systematically following four steps, he pursues a fruitful search. (See box “Arriving at Truth the Scientific Way.”) Nevertheless, scientific victories are celebrated on the ruins of scientific defeats as formerly accepted views are rejected to make way for new ones viewed as more nearly correct.
Despite this hit-and-miss method, scientists have over the centuries built up an amazing amount of scientific knowledge. Although often mistaken, they have been able to correct many inaccurate conclusions before serious damage was done. In fact, as long as faulty knowledge stays within the realm of pure science, the danger of inflicting serious harm is minimal. But when attempts are made to transform seriously flawed pure science into applied science, the results can be disastrous.
Take, for example, the scientific know-how that made possible the development of insecticides. These were highly valued until further scientific research revealed that some of them leave residues harmful to human health. In certain communities near the Aral sea, located in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, a link has been established between the widespread use of such insecticides and a rate of esophageal cancer seven times the national average.
Because of the convenience they offered, aerosol sprays became quite popular—until scientific investigation suggested that they were contributing to the destruction of the earth’s protective ozone layer, more quickly, in fact, than was once thought. Therefore, the search for scientific truth is an ongoing operation. Scientific “truths” of today may be tomorrow’s mistaken, and possibly even dangerous, ideas of yesterday.
Why Science Should Interest Us
Science and technology have had much to do with creating the structure of our modern world. Frederick Seitz, former president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, said: “Science, which started out primarily as an adventure of the mind, is now becoming one of the principal pillars of our way of life.” Thus, scientific research has today become synonymous with progress. Anyone questioning the latest scientific developments runs the risk of being labeled “antiprogressive.” After all, what some call scientific progress is to them what separates the civilized from the uncivilized.
Small wonder, then, that 20th-century British poet W. H. Auden observed: “The true men of action in our time, those who transform the world, are not the politicians and statesmen, but the scientists.”
Few people would deny that the world needs transforming. But is science up to the task? Can it discover the scientific truths necessary to cope with the unique challenges posed by the 21st century? And can these truths be learned fast enough to free humans from the fear of an impending global catastrophe?
Two-time Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling said: “Everyone who lives in the world needs to have some understanding of the nature and effects of science.” It is for the purpose of providing our readers with some of this necessary understanding that we present the series “Science—Mankind’s Ongoing Search for Truth.” Be sure to read Part 2, in our next issue.
a Christ Jesus. See the book The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived, published in 1991 by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
[Box/Picture on page 7]
ARRIVING AT TRUTH THE SCIENTIFIC WAY
1. Observe what happens.
2. Based on those observations, form a theory as to what may be true.
3. Test the theory by further observations and by experiments.
4. Watch to see if the predictions based on the theory come true.
[Box/Pictures on page 8]
ANTHROPOLOGY is the study of humans as viewed from biological, social, and cultural standpoints.
ASTRONOMY is the study of stars, planets, and other natural objects in space.
BIOLOGY is the study of how living things work and the classification of plants and animals.
BOTANY, one of the two main branches of biology, is the study of plant life.
CHEMISTRY is the study of the properties and composition of substances and the way they react with one another.
MATHEMATICS is the study of numbers, quantities, shapes, and relationships.
PHYSICS is the study of forces and qualities such as light, sound, pressure, and gravity.
PSYCHOLOGY is the study of the human mind and the reasons for human behavior.
ZOOLOGY, the second main branch of biology, is the study of animal life.