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Monday, 16 March 2015

Questions science can’t answer

There are some questions science can’t answer. But how well does this define what should, and shouldn't, be on the school science curriculum?

There is a requirement in the UK school science curriculum which states pupils should be taught that there are some questions that science cannot currently answer, and some that science cannot address. I showed this to a bunch of people (in a very non-scientific manner) and was surprised at how many immediately got upset at the concept.

One person equated this with teaching children that there are things “we should never attempt to know”, and many saw it as a conflict between science and religion, particularly related to the teaching of evolution.

This surprised me because, to a scientist, the statement should be obvious. If there were no questions that science cannot currently answer, then every scientist in the world would be out of a job - hence the name of this website. Yet there is a deep seated association in all of us that science is about proven facts - when really it’s nothing of the sort. Even the most well established scientific Theories remain open to question, representing our best understanding so far.

The second part of the statement, that there are some questions science cannot address, is typically what drew the comparison to religion. In a way they were right about there being a link, but perhaps not to be upset by it. Indeed, there are some questions that will never appear on the pages of Things We Don’t Know, because they are not questions that science can answer. In other words, because they are not scientific questions.

“Does God (or gods) exist?” is just one such question. For a question or hypothesis to be scientific, it must be falsifiable. It’s easy to hypothesize that one or more gods may exist, but it’s impossible to measure or disprove the existence of such a being. Consequently, it is not a question that science can, or should even attempt to, answer.

Similarly, anything related to ethics cannot be answered scientifically. Consider the ongoing debates over assisted suicide, or abortion. Science can measure and predict impacts of policy changes on society and individuals, but whether it’s right or wrong is ultimately down to the moral code against which the decision is to be judged - and there is no scientific measure for morality. Science can tell us whether capital punishment reduces the crime rate more or less than life imprisonment, and whether torture is more likely to yield information from a prisoner than verbal interrogation - but it cannot tell us whether it is morally right to adopt such techniques.

There is, however, a very clear and important distinction between these two scenarios. Questions that science cannot answer are not science, yet questions that science cannot currently answer are the very purpose of scientific research. So perhaps the emphasis should not be on the statement itself, but on understanding the difference.

In September, TWDK made a commitment to produce a series of downloadable materials highlighting current real-life research issues for use with the KS4 curriculum. Today, I’m very happy to announce our first step to realising this. We will soon be launching our flagship project in this area - Teaching Climate Change, and I look forward to telling you more about it very soon.

Teaching Climate Change teaser/concept image, copyright Things We Don't Know
What are we up to? Here's a teaser of our concept artwork for the upcoming Teaching Climate Change project, by Frank Stark. ©Things We Don't Know