"The Strengths and Limitations of Science"
By Steven R, Kaufman, MD, Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)
In this essay, I will explore questions about the ways in which the
sciences are true, as well as science’s limitations. That scientific
investigation is a powerful tool for understanding the workings of the
universe is manifest by humanity’s impressive technological accomplishments.
For example, the science of aerodynamics is the basis for flight, and indeed
airplanes consistently take off and land as the scientific principles of
One of science’s major strengths rests in that, if practiced properly, it
relies on observation rather than authority. In other words, scientific
claims are grounded in observable phenomena that all able-bodied humans have
the power to observe rather than the pronouncements of one or more persons
who claim to have special knowledge to which most people don’t have access.
Throughout human history, political and religious leaders have claimed to
have divine knowledge and power. Historically, unbridled authority has lent
itself to injustice. There have been benign leaders, but political leaders
(and their allies among religious authorities) have always been tempted to
abuse their power. Recent events in Iran have been only the latest in a
timeless series of such events. Those who have questioned policies that have
been attributed to the divine have been accused of heresy and, usually,
treated brutally. In contrast, if the scientific enterprise is working
properly, anyone can dispute a scientific claim with impunity, and people
will accept or reject arguments on the basis of objective observation.
That being said, science is a human activity, and human passions
influence its practice. Human needs and desires always influence what
questions are asked, how they are pursued, and how the data are interpreted.
That science in practice doesn’t always live up to science in theory is a
reason to be cautious and skeptical of scientific claims, but the general
success of science is testimony to how science generally gets things right.
Indeed, I think the historical success of science is a major reason that
those with power often employ “scientists,” who have the proper scientific
credentials, to do “scientific research” to obtain the conclusions that
those with power seek. We certainly saw this when the tobacco industry
attempted to debunk the smoking-lung cancer connection, and, as best I can
tell, we see something similar today in the fossil-fuel industry’s use of
scientists to debunk the conclusion held by the vast majority of scientists
that humanity is contributing heavily to climate change.
Next essay, I want to explore climate change further. Paradoxically, as the scientific evidence mounts, the percentage of people who agree that humanity is contributing to climate change continues to fall. Among those who do agree that climate change is a growing crisis, many seem to think the situation is hopeless. Indeed, the dire predictions of even a few years ago now seem to be relatively optimistic projections. Yet, relatively simple changes in lifestyle – including moving toward a plant-based diet – could have a major affect. Indeed, there is strong evidence that animal agriculture contributes far more to global warming than what the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization calculated, which was 18% of man-made greenhouse gasses.