“Excellent Induction, Dear Watson”. How much do we actually know?

Daniel Miles

In our world today, science is often used as a byword for rigour and accuracy. All it takes is a Bunsen burner, some dishevelled over-the-top hair and a telescope, to become the embodiment of an infallible intellectual god. It is perhaps unsurprising then, that in this environment, scientists can be slow to admit their own frailty; and to even consider the possibility of any imperfection within the scientific method would be nothing short of blasphemy. This is due, in part, to the fact that the same experiment can be done all over the world, with completely different observers, and still obtain the same result, a property unparalleled with any other form of truth. But is science truly objective?

The first problem that science encounters is the problem of induction. Since the scientific method is based entirely on using observational evidence, there is very little that science can say about absolute truth. Induction tells us the truth of the present at a certain point in space, but there is no way of knowing it will be the same tomorrow. There is no logical reason why the sun will rise again. We can estimate the probability, but we cannot know. The principle of induction, therefore, is the belief in the continuity of the universe. To illustrate this point, below are two arguments: an inductive argument and a deductive argument.

Despite the fact that my inductive argument has several evidences for George being a human, it does not logically flow that he is human; whereas the deductive argument’s conclusion is 100% true, provided the two initial premises are valid. We can only assert a probability to George’s humanity via the inductive argument, which leads to the second problem in science.

What probability do we assign to each premise? When deciding the probability of one theory being right over another, the individual makes an estimate of the weight of evidence, based on his or her pre-existent opinion. Although this opinion can ultimately be influenced by adding to the pool of evidence, it still brings an element of subjectivity into what was otherwise ‘scientific.’ If we consider the analogy of a calibration error on a piece of measuring equipment; when a scientist discovers this error he will account for it in his final answer, so that the answer remains accurate. However, if he does not discover it, it will bias all the answers he has obtained. In the same way, when a scientist analyses potential probability with a philosophical bias and does not account for it, it will temper all his later conclusions. Therefore it is not until a man acknowledges his frailty and humanity that he can maintain he is truly a scientist.

“Excellent Induction, Dear Watson”. How much do we actually know?

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