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Acknowledging Our Limits Is the Strength of Science

Foreword

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the fragility of our societies and the limits of our knowledge. We are less powerful than what we sometimes like to think. This virus has killed over a million human beings, has sickened many millions more, and has choked the economy of the planet. We have been groping in the dark.  

At this time of fragility and confusion, government leaders and the public have turned to science for a solution, recognizing that science is the best defense we have. We have been anxiously waiting for science to give us a vaccine and a cure.  And as we wait, people are still becoming sick and are still dying, promising vaccines will take time to reach everyone, and social distancing and other measures to stem the spread of the virus continue to divide people.

Scientists alone cannot decide on these measures, for science is only a tool— a tool with limits. The decisions that society faces must be made through a political process, negotiating between conflicting interests and conflicting values. To arbitrate between saving lives and protecting the economy, for instance, is to make decisions that cannot be made by science. Science is only the summary of the knowledge we currently have, and it does not have all the answers. It is often uncertain: Scientists often answer questions with “we don’t know” or “maybe.” They change their minds. Science itself grows via discussion, disagreements, trials and errors. It requires time. 

And yet, science is the best tool we have and it should not be ignored. It has given us the modern world, with all its comfort and protections. It has raised life expectancy from 30 years to more than 70 and expanded our worldview. It has given us vaccines that have eradicated horrendous illnesses of the past, medications, tests, statistical analysis, and effective public health measures. Pandemics in prescientific times killed far more people than today, decimating populations of nations around the world. Science has given us years of a healthier, comfortable life that our forefathers did not even dream. 

"Science has achieved all this by recognizing the limits on our knowledge and continuing to move beyond them."

Science has achieved all this by recognizing the limits on our knowledge and continuing to move beyond them. For this is how we humans learn. By being humble, ready to accept that we have prejudices, and struggling to move past them. Listening to viewpoints unlike our own and taking them seriously. Acknowledging that the one who is right may be the person whose opinions differ from ours. Looking toward the boundless sea of our ignorance, rather than listening to the minuteness of our convictions. Looking at the world’s innumerable questions, at the immense mystery that surrounds us, and replacing certainty of conviction with an openness to learn. This is science.  

Science has taught us that we do not get rain by dancing, we do not heal by reciting formulas, we are not the center of the universe, we have common ancestors with all living beings on Earth. It has changed our worldview repeatedly. If we have a chance to come out from this pandemic, it will be thanks to science and by listening to science. If we have a chance to overcome the far more serious challenges that humankind has to face, such as climate change, it will be by listening to science. 

And yet, what started and nourished scientific discovery has rarely been thinking about its momentous results and consequences. Science is born from curiosity. Even today for many scientists, the real motivation is nothing else than the desire to know more, to look a step further. It is the human sense of wonder that fires this wish to know. This human curiosity has taken us out of so many old prejudices. This quest has allowed humanity new vision, to see the world better and more deeply. It has been and continues to be the great adventure of getting to the boundary of what we know, and then looking in the dark and struggling to see a bit more. Because it is there, on the edge of what we know, in contact with the oceans of the unknown, that shines the mystery and the beauty of the world.

Carlo Rovelli is a theoretical physicist whose books include the bestselling "Seven Brief Lessons on Physics."

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