Strengths and Weaknesses of Science

by John P. Pratt

Reprinted from Meridian Magazine (Dec. 28, 2000)
condensed from "Millennial Science," from Charting a New Millennium,
ed. Proctor, Maurine & Scot, (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1998), pp. 367-85.
©2000 by John P. Pratt. All rights Reserved.

Index, Home

1. Revealed Truth
2. The Scientific Method
3. Weaknesses in Science
Science has some wonderful strengths, such as the scientific method, which give it great predictive power and allow us to put a man on the moon. But it also has important limitations of which we should be aware, lest we be found trusting in the arm of flesh rather than the Word of God.

Science has been so successful that now everyone wants to share its official stamp of approval. Every day we see commercials claiming that scientific evidence proves that their product is best. Our news is filled with research claims of new discoveries and court testimony relying on scientific evidence. How are we to know what really is science and what is only someone's speculation or even deception disguised as science so that we will accept it without question?

This article provides some simple keys which you can immediately begin to use to recognize true scientific results. The following proposed methods to distinguish true from false science are divided into three categories: 1) using the scriptures as a standard of truth, 2) understanding the strength of science, and 3) recognizing the weaknesses of science.

1. Revealed Truth

The Lord has revealed many truths in the scriptures which can be used as an absolute standard against which scientific theories may be measured. If any theory denies a truth which the Lord has clearly told us, then that theory is not likely to endure through the millennium. The two obvious outcomes are that either a false theory will be abandoned or we will find out that we had misunderstood the revelation. To avoid this latter case, it is extremely important to make sure that the meaning of the scripture is unmistakable so that we do not reject a true scientific discovery. Let us consider some examples of both cases.

God created the earth and all life on it. The scriptures are clear in declaring that there is a supreme intelligence which created the earth and all the plants and animals found on it. We are not given much detail as to how it was done, but there is an unmistakable assurance that it was not the result of blind chance.

We are children of God. Man is not just another animal; the scriptures are clear that man was created separately after the other animals, and that we were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). In fact, we are the literal children of God (D&C 76:24). This is extremely important to keep in mind because we are continually bombarded with statements implying that we are nothing more than animals with instincts to be gratified. Some run their businesses using "survival of the fittest" to justify unethical conduct. Abortion is condoned as merely disposing of a "fetus," rather than killing an unborn child of God. We must be on our guard at all times because Satan will use any means he can, including science, to convince us to sin. This particular example demonstrates the need for revelation especially well because even the most righteous scientists may never have been able to discover that we are the offspring of God.

The Lord knows the end from the beginning. The Lord knows the future and can reveal it to whom he will. When you find out that scholars have deduced that parts of the Book of Isaiah could not have been written by Isaiah because it clearly prophesies of things which occurred after his time, you need not feel compelled to accept that "evidence."

Man has agency. The scriptures are clear that not only does man have the ability to choose and determine his destiny to a great extent, they also explain that that is one of the reasons we are here on earth. This topic has been influenced by science. A century or two ago it was believed by many scientists that the universe was deterministic. They thought that if the position and velocity of every particle were known, that the laws of physics would dictate the entire future of the universe, and that the belief in free will was an illusion. Now the pendulum has swung the other way. It is now believed that the position and velocity of even one particle cannot be known with total precision by anyone. This theory has led to the strengthening of the theory that chance rules the universe because it is assumed that no one can know what science cannot measure. The truth seems to lie between these two extremes: man is independent to act for himself even though God can know beforehand what he will choose (D&C 93:30-32).

The Immortality of the Soul. The scriptures are clear that there is a spirit which gives life to living things and which lives on after death. When some scientists conclude that after-death experiences must all be hallucinations they are merely demonstrating their ignorance of the spirit.

The Spirit World. During the Millennium, when scientists hopefully will be free to study previously forbidden areas, they should discover that the spirit world is every bit as physically real as the easily recognized world of coarser matter (D&C 131:7). Anyone not believing in the spirit world during the millennium might be like someone today believing the earth is flat.

Health Laws. The Lord has given health laws to man long before their science was advanced enough to warn them of the dangers of certain foods and drugs or of the benefits of others. When he tells us that tobacco "is not good for man" (D&C 89:8) we can know not to believe the tobacco industry when it insists that there is no scientific evidence that tobacco is harmful. We can also follow the recommended diet in the word of wisdom without waiting for scientific evidence to explain why it is best.

In summary, we can learn a lot from the revealed truth in the scriptures, but we must be extremely careful to interpret them correctly and not to base our belief on one isolated reference nor on scriptures taken out of context.

2. The Scientific Method

There is a rock upon which true science is built. What is that rock? It is the "scientific method." Most of the tremendous strides in understanding the world around us have been made by using the scientific method. It lies at the foundation of science, and most scientists would agree that the best part of our science is based on its use.

Steps of the Scientific Method. The scientific method is a systematic way of dealing with observations, explaining them, and predicting the outcome of future observations. It is usually described as having at least three steps.

1. Observations are made. The first step usually involves observing something either in nature or in a controlled experiment. For example, you might observe that the stars seem to rise at night as the sun does in the morning. Sometimes the observations need to be accurate and precise so scientists often observe with instruments, which also eliminates human bias.

2. A theory is proposed to explain the observations. The explanation can be anything from a tentative hypothesis to a full blown mathematical theory which has resulted from analyzing thousands of experiments. One should try for the simplest and most general theory that explains all of the observations. In the example of the stars rising, one explanation is that the sun and stars are connected to an invisible sphere which rotates around the earth. Another theory is that the earth is rotating, which makes it appear that both the sun and the stars rotate around the earth. The latter theory is preferable because it much simpler and explains all the observations.

3. The theory is used to predict the results of future observations, which might prove the theory false. These future observations are often in the form of carefully controlled experiments or more refined observations. Often an experiment is set up especially to disprove one of two or more competing theories. In the current example, if the sun and stars are attached to a sphere, one would predict they would remain in fixed positions on that sphere. More accurate observations would show that such is not the case because the sun moves about twice its diameter among the stars each day, which disproves that theory. That does not prove the other theory to be correct because it could also be wrong. A disproven theory can either be abandoned or revised to explain the new observations. For example, one could postulate that the sun and stars are on different invisible spheres, which is just what some ancient theories proposed.

These three steps are usually repeated over and over, often refining the theory after each set of new observations or experiments, with increasingly difficult testing hurdles for the theory to overcome. The most valuable theories are those which make precise and risky predictions, which could easily disprove the theory if they failed. A classic example was the experiment that convinced many people of the worth of Einstein's general theory of relativity. He theorized that a beam of light would be very slightly bent by gravity and he predicted that two stars on either side of the sun during a total eclipse would appear 1.75 arc seconds farther apart than usual. The experiment was performed and the measurement vindicated his risky prediction. If the observation had shown there was no deviation of the star light, and if the observation were confirmed by several observers or several repetitions, then the theory would have been abandoned or corrected.

Note that an extremely important point is that if no experiment could possibly disprove a theory, then it is not scientific. It might still be true, but it is beyond the realm of science, and has become a personal conviction or a religious belief, like those in the "Revealed Truth" section above. The famous philosopher of science, Karl Popper, noted that a theory which explains everything really explains nothing, and hence is not scientific. In other words, if the experiment does not come out as predicted, a scientific theory will be shown to be false, whereas an unscientific theory will be able to explain the result anyway.

It is this predictive power of science that is so powerful, and which has led to much of the marvelous technology we now enjoy. When we know the law of gravity, we can build bridges and even send rockets to the moon. Without the ability to predict future results, we do not have science, we have only speculation about what happened in the past. Perhaps the greatest achievement in chemistry was the periodic table, which predicted the existence and properties of several elements before they were discovered. The existence of the planet Neptune was predicted because it would explain why other planets deviated slightly from what the law of gravity would predict.

Note also that no experiment ever proves a theory to be "true," but only that it has survived one more possible falsification test. If the prediction succeeds, it could have just been luck. For example, the planet Pluto was also predicted and discovered. After the celebration died down, many scientists realized that it had really just been luck because when the mass of Pluto became known, it was too small to have caused the observed effects.

Laws. Theories which have survived the test of time are sometimes honored with the name "laws". The theory is never proven true because there is always the chance that a new experiment will be devised which will require more than a minor revision to explain the result. A scientific law is really just a theory that has been inducted into the scientific hall of fame.

When studying science, it is an excellent idea to always try to distinguish observations from theories. When you do, you will find that it will be difficult because very few writers differentiate between them for you. Instead, they often present theories as facts.

Facts. The word "fact" has several meanings, which can be very confusing. It can mean either "observation," "theory," or "truth." As an example of each, one can say, "it is a fact that every time I have dropped this ball, it fell to the ground." That is what has been observed so far, and the word "fact" can be replaced with "observation." One can also say, "it is a fact that every time I have dropped this ball, gravity pulled it to the ground." Even though this statement appears very similar to the first, "gravity" really refers to a theory proposed to explain why the ball is observed to fall. Finally, if one so thoroughly believes that the theory of gravity is really "true," he could replace "a fact" with "true," which would take the meaning beyond science into the realm of his personal convictions.

This confusion can often be avoided by always replacing the word "fact" with "observation," "theory" or "truth," whichever seems to convey the intended meaning best. Remember that if the meaning is "observation," then it is as fallible as the observer. If it is a "theory," then it also could be disproven someday. If it is claimed to be "truth," then it is a statement of the personal conviction of the speaker, which is outside the domain of science.

Everyday Science. We actually apply the scientific method often. If your grass is not green, you might theorize that it needs fertilizer, and predict that if you fertilize it, it will turn greener. Suppose your car stops running. You theorize it is out of gas, but the gas gauge says you have plenty. Finally, after disproving several theories, you replace the gas filter and then it works again. You haven't proven that it was the gas filter, but you will believe it was until something convinces you otherwise. That's the scientific method at work. As you go through life, try identifying these steps of 1) making observations, 2) explaining them and 3) using your theory to predict future observations. Now let us practice using the scientific method.

Begin by making a concentrated effort to separate the observations from the theory. This can be the most difficult step because we tend to believe the theories to be "true" and hence confuse them with the facts (observations). Then ask the following questions.

1. Observations. What are the observations upon which this theory is based? How reliable are the observations? Have they been repeated by several experimenters? If not, were there several witnesses? Could the observer, even if it is a scientific instrument, be biased or otherwise in error? On what hidden assumptions are the observations based? Are you dealing with the original observations or those of a secondary commentator? Are the observations partially dependent on a theory being correct?

2. Theory. Is the theory a tentative hypothesis or a mature theory with verified predictive powers, which has already survived many assaults? Does the theory explain all of the observations or only some? Could it be modified to explain all of the observations? Is it a simple theory? Is it a general theory which would explain related observations or was it custom made only for certain observations? Does it explain observations which otherwise appear to be unrelated? Is it speculation about the past which may sound convincing, but which really cannot be tested? What are the hidden assumptions upon which this theory is based?

3. Predictions. Does the theory have predictive power? How risky (precise) are the predictions? Have the predictions been verified by several experiments? If the predictions fail, would supporters of the theory really be willing to abandon or modify the theory? Are the predictions so reliable that technology has been invented based on the theory? If not, why not? If it is not useful for bettering mankind, what is the purpose of the theory?

3. Weaknesses in Modern Science

There are many weaknesses in modern science and with a little practice one can recognize examples of these weakness in scientific reports and claims. Hopefully all of these weaknesses can be corrected in the next millennium. As you are bombarded in television commercials and news reports with scientific claims, or even science and nature educational shows, ask yourself whether any of the following weaknesses flaw the presentation.

Scientists Confuse Theory with Truth. When a theory proves extremely successful in predicting observations, even scientists forget that they are supposed to be ready to discard the theory objectively and without regret when it fails. This is probably because they have come to believe their theory is actually "true" rather than just a successful model. The big steps in science have been taken by those bold enough to believe the observations rather than the theories. In astronomy, for example, Kepler believed the observations of Tycho which showed that the planets move in elliptical orbits around the sun, rather than perfect circles as Copernicus had postulated. Kepler's bold step resulted in what are now known as Kepler's laws.

Disallowing Human Observations. While it is true that often an instrument can be invented which surpasses the ability of humans to observe both accurately and precisely, there is a tendency to disallow all human observations. That seems extreme, especially in the cases where no instrument has yet been invented because the phenomenon is not well enough understood. If most people were blind, would it be "scientific" to ignore all observations by the few who could see only because blind scientists could not invent a camcorder and connect it to their optic nerves? The study of extra-sensory perception, acupuncture, and the aura is finally beginning to advance in Western science because this unreasonable restriction is beginning to be relaxed. Instruments will probably be invented to observe and record these phenomena, which will put them more directly into the realm of science.

Not-yet-measured Equated to Non-existent. Even worse than ignoring the observations of those who can see something which you cannot is the tendency of science to declare that something does not even exist if cannot be measured by an instrument. This extra step into ignorance compounds the problem.

Rejecting Theory-Invalidating Observations Because of no better theory. Even when observations are made which invalidate a theory, it is the nature of most researchers not to reject the former theory until a new model is proposed that explains all of the observations so far. A modern day example of this is that quasars are still believed by most astronomers to be located extremely far away, even though there is strong evidence that they are shot out of nearby galaxies. The problem is that current theory does not explain how quasars coming toward could be "red-shifted," a phenomenon only expected to occur for objects moving away from us. Until someone can explain how quasars moving toward us can be red-shifted, astronomers are not likely to be convinced that they are nearby, no matter how strong the evidence is.

False Assumptions. All of science is based on various underlying assumptions. Often these are so deeply rooted that the scientists are unaware of just what they are. If they turn out the be wrong, then the entire edifice built upon them could fall. For example, for millennia it was assumed that the plane geometry of Euclid was "true," but then Einstein and others proposed "curved space" which has proven to be a very fruitful theory. Similarly space and time were believed to be absolute and matter was believed to be different from energy, and again it was Einstein who has argued convincingly otherwise. When the underlying foundations are wrong, it often requires rebuilding the entire scientific edifice, as was the case with Einstein.

Science Need Not Be Atheistic. In our day, the world teaches that scientists should be atheistic so that they are not prejudiced by the false traditions of religion, which hamper progress. A century ago the name of God appeared in many science books, but now his name has systematically been removed. We are taught that the thought of mixing God into science is "unscientific."

It seems very likely that in the millennium, the pendulum will swing back to allowing God to do science along with us, his creations, because it may be discovered that the real problem is the "false traditions" rather than the "religion." Future books may note that the false traditions of atheism hindered progress even more than false religion because it forced man to propose very unlikely mechanisms for the universe somehow to create itself. When the Lord reigns during the millennium, we can expect that the typical scientist will believe like Louis Agassiz, probably the greatest naturalist of his day, who said, "In our study of natural objects we are approaching the thoughts of the Creator, reading his conceptions, interpreting a system that is His and not ours." He was among those who appeared to Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple, requesting that his temple work be done.

Government and Special Interests. Most scientific research done today is funded by governments, so scientists must tailor their agenda (and even findings?) accordingly, or be out of work. This is particularly unfortunate in countries where secret combinations are in control. Similarly, large corporations hire scientists to prove that their products are safe to use or superior to their competitors. We can hardly expect an unbiased report of their findings. When the Savior reigns during the millennium, restrictions and falsifications caused by conspiring men should be greatly alleviated.

To some extent, we can judge right now which sciences will endure throughout the millennium by comparing them to revealed truth, by seeing how firmly they are built on the foundation of the scientific method, and by noticing how much they might be affected by the weaknesses in science.