It’s a subtle point, but the British comedian Ricky Gervais was not quite right when he told Stephen Colbert on The Late Show yesterday, “Science is constantly being proved all the time.”
Perhaps he misspoke. He was put on the defensive. Colbert, an idiosyncratic but sincere Catholic, was not really playing devil’s advocate when he challenged Gervais to an argument about the existence of God on his show. Gervais is outspoken about his disbelief and is fond of tweeting the reductio ad absurdum of various religious arguments, yet initially he seemed at a loss for how to deflect Colbert’s skepticism of the Big Bang.
When Gervais began to evoke the awe of the idea that the universe was once smaller than an atom, Colbert retorted, “But you don’t know that.”
Sigh. “Well, but…”
“You’re just believing Stephen Hawking, and that’s a matter of faith in his abilities. You don’t know it yourself—you’re just accepting that because someone told you.”
“Well but science is constantly being proved all the time,” Gervais said. “If we take something like any holy book and any other fiction, and destroyed it, okay, in a thousand years time it wouldn’t come back just as it was. Whereas if we took every science book, right, and every fact, and destroyed them all, in a thousand years they’d all be back, because all the same tests would be the same result.”
“That’s good. That’s really good.”
We may never know when we’re right, but we can at least know when we’re not completely wrong.
Yes, that is good. But it still isn’t quite right. The fact that Newton’s physics, for example—with its picture of space as a stage on which matter moves about, governed by forces like gravity—would eventually be rediscovered if lost, doesn’t imply that science is, or will, constantly be proved all the time. It’s more precise to say that if science ever succeeds, it succeeds in failing to be proven wrong by another idea. Newtonian physics was revolutionary for its time and withstood all the attempts to show it mistaken; yet we now know how inadequate it turned out to be: Albert Einstein came along and showed that his rival idea about space and time out-predicted Newton’s, which couldn’t make sense of James Clerk Maxwell’s findings regarding the intimate relationship between magnetism and the constant speed of light.
Nevertheless, it was silly of Colbert to suggest that having faith in God is intellectually equivalent to trusting well-established scientific conclusions. We can tell that the Big Bang happened by rolling back the tape of what’s happening now: Galaxies flying away from us, in all directions, at an increasing speed, due to the accelerating expansion of space itself. This information isn’t a revelation but an observation.
Of course, this view could be wrong—but the point is that it hasn’t, despite all the attempts, been shown to be wrong. As David Deutsch, an Oxford quantum physicist with an affinity for philosophy of science once said in his “Ingenious” interview with Nautilus, “If you see why the criticisms fail, then you can be comfortable—not that [the Big Bang theory] is true—but that the rival ideas that you might have entertained are false,” Deutsch says.
Deutsch calls this philosophy, much inspired by Karl Popper, “fallibilism.” All attempts to create knowledge, he says, “are subject to error.” We may never know when we’re right, but we can at least know when we’re not completely wrong. Science isn’t constantly being proved right, but it is failing to be shown inferior to any other way of understanding nature.
Brian Gallagher is the editor of Facts So Romantic, the Nautilus blog. Follow him on Twitter @bsgallagher.