Chapter 23
Science and Deception

Recall the simple definition of “science” that we are using:

Science: Knowledge about the natural world and universe derived from experiments, observation, and reason.

Since “science” deals with knowledge “derived from experiments, observation, and reason,” one might think that it is relatively difficult to be deceived about matters of science. However, we previously saw in chapters 19 and 20 that many people have more faith in science than actual scientific knowledge. Since much of what we believe regarding science is really based on faith in what scientists say (rather than our own direct observation and understanding), the possibility for deception is rather large, in my opinion.

For example, did you hear about the technology start-up company whose main product was based on a scientific breakthrough? Investors poured money into the company, believing the science behind their planned product was solid. Instead, only the company’s business plan to get money from investors was solid! The investors believed the science was valid, but apparently it was not. Fraud was alleged; lawsuits followed. I’m purposely not naming names here; the situation described is not unique to one company.

Consider another example. Many years ago it was a common scientific belief (based on simple experiments, observation, and reason) that many life forms, especially small insects, spontaneously developed in organic matter (such as in rotting food or feces). It was around the year 1864 that Louis Pasteur clearly showed that spontaneous generation of life does not happen. He showed that all life forms come from similar life forms through natural reproductive methods. With more-developed science now in existence, it is now widely accepted that life forms as we know them do not just spontaneously happen. This is a clear example of a former “scientific” belief that has been shown to be false based on better science. Appearances can be deceiving!

Consider the science of medicine. How many drugs have you heard of that were once promoted as a good treatment for a particular health problem but were later found out to have harmful effects that were worse than their benefits? Many people took those drugs believing that medical science showed them to be safe. They believed the drugs were safe, when they actually were not safe. They believed something was true which actually was false. They were deceived.

Note that the definition of “deceived” we are using does not consider whether or not there is a willful deceiver involved. Being deceived is simply “a state of believing something to be true which is actually false, or believing something to be false which is actually true.” In the last two examples, it does not appear that anyone was intentionally deceiving anyone else. However, in the first example (the start-up company) there appears to be a greater likelihood of intentional deception by someone. So, we can be deceived about things even in the absence of intentional deception.

Consider a common thread to each of the above examples. In each case people believed something they actually had little or no direct knowledge about. They had faith either in their own limited understanding, or in the limited scientific knowledge of others. So, we see that we can be deceived about “scientific” knowledge when that knowledge is either incomplete or is simply accepted by faith.

For Further Reflection:

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