In 1900, mathematician and physicist Lord William Thomson Kelvin proclaimed, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” Kelvin was wrong, of course. In fact, he could not have been more incorrect—the next few decades alone saw the discovery of general relativity, other galaxies, radioactivity, and quantum mechanics, to name a few fields.
Kelvin’s infamous quote now serves as a warning against scientific hubris. I’ve discussed in detail the important of questioning science, though this is somewhat different. This has to do with the acceptance that science is an ongoing process, or to put it more bluntly, that everything we know is wrong.
People tend to exhibit a phenomenon psychologists to call the end of history illusion. As explained in this wonderful (as always) episode of Vsauce, the illusion highlights our difficulty in understanding the future. Ask anybody who they were ten years ago. People will likely explain their former hobbies and interests and how they have changed. Yet when asked about who they will be ten years in the future, people almost invariable think they will be more or less the same. Even though our lives and personalities evolve over time, we are convinced we have arrived at the end of history.
Much is the same with science. Have you ever picked up a textbook and marveled at what people used to think? Outdated theories seem ridiculous compared to what we know now. But what will people say in fifty years when they think of us? Our ideas will seem just as silly to them as our predecessors’ theories seem to us. Our greatest successes will be described as ahead of their time and our misses anachronistic. We are simply one data point on the ongoing search for knowledge.
To be sure, we are not walking blindly through the dark. The scientific method allows us to constantly retest and refine our understandings. It is by no means a linear process, but we have undoubtedly progressed over time. This progress is contingent, though, on our willingness to abandon our beliefs in light of new evidence. This is what theoretical physicist Michio Kaku means when he says that everything in physics is wrong. He does not mean his landmark equations in string theory are worthless. Nor does he mean our work is for naught. Instead, he believes each contribution is a small step toward the truth. Our willingness to give up outdated information and acknowledge inaccuracies is the key to its growth.
I am currently drowning in papers and theoretical math, so I’m going to leave this post short. Let me know your thoughts on Lord Kelvin and Kaku. Does our pride hold us back? Is Kaku too disparaging of progress? Talk it up, yo. To ensure maximum coolness, please like, share, or reblog this post if you enjoy it. That small click really helps me out,. Be sure to check me out on Twitter and Facebook as well. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to subscribe for new content every Wednesday! IT’S FREE!
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Comment question of the week
Is science plagued by hubris? Does our overconfidence hold back progress?