Half the scientific facts you know might be wrong

When Rationalists themselves acknowledge the limitations and flaws in their Scientism, then they are on the path to enlightenment.

When they finally desist with the puerile “it’s been scientifically proven” as an argument, for the reason that scientific discovery is always changing, along with some of the observed phenomena themselves, then maturity of intellect is the result.

When they then admit the metaphysical into their worldview as part and parcel of physically observed phenomena, than that is close to wisdom.

I was wandering through a rationalist site [as distinct from refusing to read something because it might not say something new on a topic I’ve already prejudged] and read:

Since knowledge is still growing at an impressively rapid pace, it should not be surprising that many facts people learned in school have been overturned and are now out of date. But at what rate do former facts disappear?

Arbesman applies to the dissolution of facts the concept of half-life—the time required for half the atoms of a given amount of a radioactive substance to disintegrate. For example, the half-life of the radioactive isotope strontium-90 is just over 29 years. Applying the concept of half-life to facts, Arbesman cites research that looked into the decay in the truth of clinical knowledge about cirrhosis and hepatitis. “The half-life of truth was 45 years,” he found.

In other words, half of what physicians thought they knew about liver diseases was wrong or obsolete 45 years later. Similarly, ordinary people’s brains are cluttered with outdated lists of things, such as the 10 biggest cities in the United States.

Facts are being manufactured all of the time, and, as Arbesman shows, many of them turn out to be wrong.

Indeed so. Not only in an honest manner but also in a dishonest or flawed thing called pseudo-science. A reader and fellow-blogger called Don QuiScottie wrote:

It’s not surprising if some residual irrationality leaks through into the operation of science by people.

… and:

Of course it could be wrong. It often is. And it acknowledges that, eventually, That, I repeat, is how Science and science works – big S small s or any squiggly s you prefer. I fail to understand why you think the possibility that Science may make mistakes is worthy of comment. The history of Science and science is riddled with powerful cabals reluctant to accept challenge to their ideas, but their ideas are challenged, and science and Science proceeds.

… and:

The most fundamental point about science is that it works by forever being open to the idea that what it has suggested previously might be wrong.

That is indeed what science should do but it doesn’t. It goes down one of three paths today – the big money pseudo-science which has been written about even by DQS and this other phenomenon of Scientism – the chiselling in stone of eternal verities which is the new Orthodoxy, the new Moses tablets, when by DQS’s own definition, science is a most imprecise thing by its very nature.

The third path post-1700s “science” has gone down is to enter politics and religion and try to set itself in opposition to an entirely different discipline, i.e. understanding the phenomena which cannot be physically explained.

That this other field exists is beyond question – whole lifetimes of countless people in many nations have been devoted to this. The overweening arrogance of the rationalists in airily dismissing this with a sweep of the hand through their ignorance shows that their own worldview is severely hampered, retarded in fact by their chronic psychological inability to work with the evidence rather than set themselves implacably against it.

A most unreasoned and anti-scientific approach, using DQS’s definition of science.

28 comments for “Half the scientific facts you know might be wrong

  1. December 26, 2012 at 10:44 am

    Thanks for the references, especially: “The most fundamental point about science is that it works by forever being open to the idea that what it has suggested previously might be wrong.”

    If only everybody operating in all arenas – science, religion, politics, economics etc. – could apply it then we would progress more quickly.

    • Greg Tingey
      December 27, 2012 at 8:20 am

      In direct opposition to religion, which is never, ever, wrong – though some “other” folowers might be heretics or unbelievers or deluded (& of course EVIL) followers of some $OTHER_GOD, who must be converted/persecuted/killed, eh?

  2. Mark
    December 26, 2012 at 11:11 am

    However, please bear in mind that scientific ”facts” are sometimes rendered obsolete without actually being wrong.

    Newtonian mechanics could be said to be ”wrong” as it fails to take account of relativistic effects. It was improved upon by Einstein but it still remains a good model of the way the world works at everyday speeds and distances.

    • December 26, 2012 at 11:24 am

      And Newtonian mechanics remains perfectly adequate to get spacecraft into orbit and to the moon and mars etc. This issue of “models” versus reality and of models being refined while the previous ones remain useful, and indeed better to use in many cases, is something many find difficult to comprehend. Much of science is concerned with modelling reality, just as a map models geography, and different models (like different maps) can have different levels of accuracy and include different information, while each being useful and valid for the purpose they were made for. Students at introductory levels sometimes get frustrated with this and say they things like they “just want to know what an electron or a chemical bond really is.” They don’t like it if we say, “we don’t know”.

  3. December 26, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Maybe one of the problems here is the concept of a ‘scientific fact’. Is there such a thing?
    Should we not treat all science as theory or hypothesis, which certainly can trend towards ‘fact’ as ideas get reinforced by further information, but nevertheless are still only theories.

    • December 26, 2012 at 11:26 am

      Indeed Woody, an excellent point.

    • December 26, 2012 at 11:57 am

      Woodsy’s right to ask if such a thing as scientific fact exists, which is just as valid a question as does God exist? It’s a strange situation when the stick-in-the mud is the “Rationalist” and the radical challenging the Orthodox assumptions is the Christian. Things turned on their heads, eh?

      Which is not to say both cannot be correct. I don’t see the controversy. It seems to me that it’s like arguing that a BMW is a better car than a Lear Jet is a plane. Two different things running along two different lines.

      There’s most certainly evidence of both, for example, the soul in one and the fossil record in the other. Why the two can’t coexist as they do in real life is a measure of the brainwashing which has gone on since birth in the last two generations.

      • James Strong
        December 26, 2012 at 5:54 pm

        What evidence is there for the soul?

        • December 26, 2012 at 6:42 pm

          It exists.

          • Lerxst
            December 27, 2012 at 9:16 pm

            So absolutely none. Just an assertion of “it exists because I say it does”. 😆

      • Greg Tingey
        December 27, 2012 at 8:26 am


        Yes, scientific facts do exist.
        The average surface acceleration due to gravity on the Earth’s surface is (*approx) 9.81 m/s^2.
        G = 6.67300 × 10-11 m^3 kg^-1 s^-2
        c = 2.99793*10^8 m/s
        Absolute Zero

        Stop trying to muddy the waters with your profound ignorance, please.

    • Greg Tingey
      December 27, 2012 at 8:22 am

      Yes, there is, actually.
      Science can always close off an area of hypothesisation, by showing it to be wrong.
      Indeed a lot of csience is “just” this.
      The Phlogiston hypothesis for chemistry, as one historical example ….
      Or the original pre-Rutherford atom.

  4. December 26, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    I wasn’t thinking of religious ‘truths’so much as scientific explanations. I’m not religious as such, although I think there is vastly more to ‘reality’ than we can peceive through our limited senses.

    We live in this odd place where we see by radiation that just conveniently happens to make open lattices of atoms look like solid objects, meanwhile they stick in their shape using forces we don’t understand at all, and yet on the larger scale we can pick them up with our lattice of atoms fingers and they don’t fall through, we can cut stuff with a knife and build things and think thoughts.

    I think we often refer to something as a ‘scientific fact’ when in actuality it is little more than a rule of mathematics or engineering. As Don QuiScottie suggests, adequate models of reality and serve a practical purpose, they work within the limits needed. A map is a good analogy, tells you all about the terrain but nothing about what the ground is made of.

    What ‘facts’ don’t tell us is anything beyond the simplistic. They cannot be applied when the system becomes very complicated with millions of interactions.

    Neither do the scaintific facts, even very simple ones like why things fall down under gravity, provide any underlying explanation as to why. There will be a deeper rule, then another deeper rule, until we reach an area where frankly nobody knows. At basic level we reach a point where it just ‘is’.

    Science is the business of digging deeper and making more useful theories and rules, but facts?

    • December 26, 2012 at 1:59 pm

      I like what you say Woodsy. Must visit your blog and see what “Grumpology” is all about. It sounds like a field I may be suited to.

    • Greg Tingey
      December 27, 2012 at 8:27 am

      See my reply above.

      Absolute Zero is a fact.
      Get used to it.

      • December 27, 2012 at 11:10 am

        I don’t dispute the existence or accuracy of absolute zero or the measurement of acceleration due to gravity, They are concepts that help us and enable us to make progress, but I’m suggesting that these ‘facts’ are usually (always?) simply measurements.
        The acceleration figure is simply an average, it varies from place to place. Measuring it, accurate and useful though that may be, does nothing to explain why it exists or what causes it.
        I don’t know enough about absolute zero or atomic physics, but try and prove it’s the same everywhere and everywhen in the universe and I think you will have trouble.
        I’m not complaining that science is not useful, nor that it’s wrong, just that its ‘facts’ are generally limited and incomplete.
        Newton’s laws for example are a perfectly good approximation for day to day use, but we know that they are not quite right, Einstein told us, – so they aren’t really facts – and neither do they tell us why gravity attracts, so they don’t explain either. They are just working measurements and useful rules. Facts in only the most trivial sense of the word.

        • December 27, 2012 at 12:27 pm

          I’m not complaining that science is not useful, nor that it’s wrong, just that its ‘facts’ are generally limited and incomplete.

          I agree and as DQS also said – science does adjust itself over time, except for cabals on certain dogmas who get in the way and slow down the process for some time.

        • Voice of Reason
          December 27, 2012 at 8:59 pm

          “I don’t know enough about absolute zero or atomic physics, but try and prove it’s the same everywhere and everywhen in the universe and I think you will have trouble.”

          True enough. However, we can measure nuclear processes in stars long ago via spectroscope, which, shows, among other things, that the speed of light has not changed at that time, and for those events. Never finding one piece of evidence which contradicts that strengthens the model.

  5. james wilson
    December 26, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Von Hayek-
    Ever since the beginning of modern science, the best minds have recognized that “the range of acknowledged ignorance will grow with the advance of science.” Unfortunately, the popular effect of this scientific advance has been a belief, seemingly shared by many scientist, that the range of our ignorance is steadily diminishing and that we can therefore aim at more comprehension and deliberate control of all human activities. It is for this reason that those intoxicated by the advance of knowledge so often become the enemies of freedom.

    The mind cannot foresee its own advance. Human reason can neither predict not deliberately shape its own future. Its advances consist in finding out where it has been wrong.

    It is impossible for anyone to begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.

    Maxwell Plank-
    A truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

  6. Mudplugger
    December 26, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    But first analyse the headline “Half the scientific facts you know might be wrong”. So what of the other half ?

    That other half must, therefore, be either wholly wrong or wholly right. If the former condition applies, we may thus conclude that all ‘scientific facts we know’ may actually be wrong.

    That fills me with even more confidence.

    • JonP
      December 27, 2012 at 8:25 am

      Yep, a more accurate title would have been: “All the scientific facts you know might be wrong.”

    • Greg Tingey
      December 27, 2012 at 8:30 am


      “Newtonian Mechanics” is “wrong” if you want to take very large masses &/or very high velocities (relative to c) into account.
      The rest of the time it is correct, for all useful purposes.

      In what circumastances does one apply General Relativity &/or QM?
      Both are proven, correct theories, except they don’t agree, in certain areas – the great unsolved problem of modern Physics, in fact.

      The shher lack of basic understanding and ignorance displayed in this blog is truly scary.

      • JonP
        December 27, 2012 at 9:22 am

        “…MIGHT be wrong.” Unquestioningly accepting scientific facts isn’t very scientific.

        Newtonian mechanics isn’t wrong, but it’s not “right” either. It’s a very good approximation, that like you say, works well enough in most cases.

        “In what circumastances does one apply General Relativity &/or QM?” – Exactly! Assuming Newtonian mechanics will work just because it’s a “fact” is lazy.

  7. Voice of Reason
    December 26, 2012 at 9:58 pm

    James – you really should stop castigating this deceased equine. You don’t like many results in science simply because they don’t support your own religious beliefs. If they did so, you would be crowing about it.

  8. johnnyrvf
    December 26, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    For me the comment by Maxwell Plank says it all, I will use it when debating with the supporters of any belief of a scientific concensus, what ever the subject may be, wise words in a universe of an unimaginable number of mysteries.

    • Greg Tingey
      December 27, 2012 at 8:32 am

      Ah, quoting a dead “authority” rather like using the bible or the koran, in other words.

      Where is your, you know, EVIDENCE?

  9. Greg Tingey
    December 27, 2012 at 8:53 am

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