Yes, I know that, even if I sometimes struggle with accepting it. Ultimately, scientists and scholars have much more accurate information and knowledge than I will ever have. I don't have the skill and knowledge to create some of the unquestioned theories that I would prefer to be less unquestioned.
Fair enough. I think, though, that fewer theories than you might think are actually "unquestioned" among scientists. Note that I'm interpreting your use of "theory" to mean a theory in the scientific sense ("this is an explanatory model that can be falsified thus"), not the everyday term that basically means "this is my take on it." Stop me if my assumption is incorrect.
We may question the conclusions, but a theory should be countered with another theory, preferably a simpler one (in the terms of Occam, not more simple-minded) which fits the facts better. This is generally anathema to conspiracy theorists and fringe scientists alike.
When another theory is
offered, it shouldn't be condemned out of hand, even if the people who offered the theory didn't have the professional scientific background of those who framed the accepted theory. There are serious scholars who will probably never be considered anything other than "fringe scientists", but if their ideas do the facts (to some degree, as nothing would ever fit all the facts perfectly), they should be given place. Really, there shouldn't be any "fringe scientists"; the division should only be between real scientists who use the scientific method and those who are just sensationalists.
That seems reasonable, and is in fact what has happened in any number of breakthroughs throughout history. I'd hesitate to present the dichotomy between scientific method contra sensationalists. Many would believe they adhere to the scientific method yet do not (a phenomenon by no means restricted to non-scientists!). Others would believe the scientific method has "holes" to it, that intuition or divine guidance or a thousand other things is to be preferred.
Above all else, however, a scientist or
a dabbler must always be ready and willing to examine his or her assumptions. That's an ideal, of course, and scientists can be hidebound or reactionary just as anyone else. However, the important thing is that there has to be a common format to the proposed ideas. Every author of an idea must be prepared for the possibility of being wrong. Every idea that is advanced must
be falsifiable. One example of this is Charles Darwin saying, "If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down
." He was prepared and indeed willing to face refutation.
Does scientific consensus today contain a lot of holes, even errors? Of course it does. Does that mean anything goes, that any explanation is equally valid? I don't see how that follows. As Asimov once famously said, "when people thought the world was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the world was round, they were also wrong. But if you think the idea of the earth being round is just as wrong as the idea of it being flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."
That sounds like a wise and balanced thought to me. However, it would be good to remember that the scientific consensus once held that the earth was flat.
It did? I can name no society off-hand with a formal evidence-based tradition of science that held this belief. But yeah, the essence of your statement remains. The thing is, that only means that the prevailing theory is inaccurate. Once its axioms are established, a spherical earth is a simpler, infinitely more accurate model, and is fairly easily verified even with stone-age technology.
That's sort of where I was having trouble going with my thoughts. Scholars shouldn't be able to lay down a dogma based on their interpretation of facts.
And it does happen. Arguably, the true utility of the scientific method is that it offers (some amount of) self-correction, and new ways of accomplishing old things.
Take one of my favorite stories, that of Fermat's Last Theorem
. It's become a bit of a legend and deserves to be taken with a grain of salt as I'm not even remotely qualified to comment on the actual mathematics involved, but I know the reader's digest version. Pierre Fermat
, a great mathematician, was a bit of an odd duck. He was active in the 17th century and was by accounts more fascinated by mathematics itself than an audience.
Pierre Fermat wrote:
It is impossible to separate a cube into two cubes, or a fourth power into two fourth powers, or in general, any power higher than the second, into two like powers. I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.
This quote was found in the margin of a copy of the 1670 edition of Diophantus' Arithmetica. Fermat never published the proof itself,
and it baffled mathematicians for 300 years (imagine if you found an old document written by an authority you trust saying "I've discovered an infallible way to predict which stocks will rise. All you have to do is" with the rest of the paper having been torn off). As trolls go, it was fairly effective. People tried and tried and tried and there was, I imagine, no small amount of cursing in between attempts.Andrew Wiles
, a UK mathematician, finally solved it and published the proof in 1995. This proof, however, employed what could fairly be described as cutting-edge mathematics. There was no way Fermat could have arrived at the proof by that same route, because the tools to do so didn't exist in the 17th century.
So did Fermat find a simpler way to arrive at the same conclusion? Could he have imagined seeing something which later turned out to be correct? There's no way to prove conclusively. All I know is that it makes for a damn good story.