We live in a complex, constantly changing, ever more amazing, astonishing world. One of the things which takes me aback every time I come across it is a claim to know something for certain, and, beyond that, the claim that this certain knowledge is the ONLY possible explanation or choice.
Margaret Thatcher once famously said “There is no alternative”. The moment she said that she revealed she was living in a state of delusion. In complex, interconnected phenomena (like Life, the environment, the economy…..) there are countless alternatives. What she really meant was she didn’t wish to consider anybody else’s opinions, views, or values.
We’re facing a similar situation in economics. The latest fashion is for “austerity” (which seems to mean protect the profit making potential of the finance sector by reducing everyone else’s standard of living). The advocates of this view, who are in the seats of power throughout Europe, are certain that this is the right policy to adopt. In fact they are so certain, (“there is no Plan B”), that they maintain there are no alternatives.
It’s the same in Medicine. I read a piece recently by a Pain Specialist (that’s someone who tries to reduce pain, not inflict it!), who used the phrase “the Ayatollahs of Evidence Based Medicine”. Health policy makers, claiming the certainties of science, cite “evidence bases” to support their choices based on their world view ie their values, prejudices and preferences. They are convinced they are right, that they know best, not just what is best for them, but what is best for you. If you think differently they will tell you you are wrong.
Yesterday, reading The Edge, I came across this statement by Carlo Rovelli.
The very expression ‘scientifically proven’ is a contradiction in terms. There is nothing that is scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas, we have prejudices. We have ingrained prejudices
CARLO ROVELLI is a theoretical physicist, working on quantum gravity and on foundations of spacetime physics. He is professor of physics at the University of the Mediterranean in Marseille, France and member of the Intitut Universitaire de France. He is the author of The First Scientist: Anaximander and His Legacy; and Quantum Gravity.
It’s a good point, and one worth remembering……science is NOT about certainty, it’s about unceasing wonder and having the humility to know that you will never know everything.
I don’t trust those who claim there are no alternatives to their own “certain” one. There’s nothing appealing about the arrogance of conviction.