“Science Is Not Another Opinion”
Communications of the ACM, March 2021, Vol. 64 No. 3, Pages 36-38
Viewpoints – The profession of IT
By Peter J. Denning, Jeffrey Johnson
“Different communities can and do evolve different statements of scientific facts based on the same evidence.”
Is science just another opinion? As the weeks unfold into months in the COVID-19 pandemic, scientists have struggled to understand the disease, how best to treat it, and how to find a vaccine. The frustration over new outbreaks and the difficulties of containing the disease have embroiled mainstream politics. Some politicians, claiming their policies are science-based, handpick scientists whose expert opinions align with their political views. Scientists appear on talk-show panels where their expert opinions are treated like the political opinions—with admiration if they agree with yours, disdain if they do not.
Treating science as if it is just another opinion is a disservice to science and to humanity. As computing professionals, we rely on science to support our work and give confidence that our systems can be trusted. What makes science different from political, journalistic, barroom, or dinner-table opinions?
Scientists investigate the natural and social worlds to understand how things work and learn their laws of operation. Many scientific laws begin as professional opinions, or hypotheses, that evolve into statements that are so well supported by evidence that no one doubts them. When this happens, the statements are called “settled science.” The profession of science has adopted a “scientific method”—a standard way of formulating and proving or disproving scientific hypotheses. Science is open to the possibility that new evidence may disrupt settled science. In other words, science is never sure it has discovered “truth.” To look at science as a method of finding truth is hubris. The issue is not who has the “truth,” but whose claims deserve more credence.
Let us investigate why that scientists doing their best work on new questions may disagree. The disagreements hasten the journey to settling the scientific questions.
About the Authors:
Peter J. Denning is Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Cebrowski Institute for information innovation at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, is Editor of ACM Ubiquity, and is a past president of ACM. The author’s views expressed here are not necessarily those of his employer or the U.S. federal government.
Jeffrey Johnson is Professor of Complexity Science and Design at the UK Open University. He is Vice President of the UNESCO UniTwin Complex Systems Digital Campus, an Associate Editor of ACM Ubiquity, and past president of the Complex Systems Society.