All science is not created equal. Unlike many human endeavors,
the "truth" of a scientific discovery is not subject
to majority rule, nor must it conform to the moral or political
whims of society. In the end, all scientific knowledge must
conform to nature.
Scientific progress is neither linear or predictable. One
day, a small, stubborn fact may kindle a fresh insight that
grows into a fundamentally new way of looking at the world.
Or, that same meddlesome observation may ignite a flurry of
public interest and speculation, even though no scientist
gives it a moment's thought.
While science is not subject to majority vote, and often
single individuals are the first to challenge convention,
over time, valid insights are confirmed and consensus emerges
(see FAQ for more details). But, it's
always important to remember that strong evidence creates
scientific consensus. Majority-held views cannot legislate
fiction into a fact.
We probably want to teach our children (at least when they
are young), mostly Confirmed Facts and provide
them with the tools to think rationally about the world. We
probably shouldn't make personal, life changing decisions
based on Dubious or Fictional information. And,
we need an open debate which clearly separates scientific
knowledge from political concerns, when our knowledge is in
flux and only Possibly or Likely to be true.
In that spirit, these rankings bring order and coherence
to our knowledge of the world. The foundation that is modern
science is extraordinarily sound. Society depends, at every
moment, on the predictability that foundation brings. But,
in every moment there is always something new to learn, and
fresh questions to answer. Were it not for the progress demonstrated
by science over the last few hundred years, such flux would
be concerning. But instead, it is the fuel that drives the
engine of progress.
A Fact is a scientific conclusion so well confirmed
that no serious scientist doubts its validity. Facts
are consistent with all other known scientific laws,
and more importantly, help unify and deepen our understanding
of the universe. Facts are so trusted that they
are used as a filter to test and validate other, less
well understood phenomena.
A Confirmed scientific concept is consistent
with most, but perhaps not all Facts. While a
few groups may be unable to reproduce key evidence supporting
the Confirmed concept, most groups do so easily
with a variety of independent methods.
An example of a Confirmed
concept is global warming. Data from satellites, earth
based thermometers, migratory bird patterns, glacial
melting etc. all point to a very real effect. However,
the world is a complex, interacting system that is too
hard to model with the same level of confidence as,
say, an integrated circuit. We KNOW its getting hotter-
THINK we understand most of the mechanisms, and SPECULATE
on its implications. But warming itself is Confirmed.
Likely scientific concepts are supported by
observations and calculations performed by many groups
in many organizations. But, a small number of competent
groups hold a different view, with their own strong
corpus of evidence. Typically, one group has made a
mistake in thinking, or more often, are systematically
measuring a different phenomena. But until the facts
are separated from fiction, they are ranked only as
An example of a Likely
concept is the insight that most cancers can be traced
back to a few aberrant stem cells, and that by destroying
those cells, the cancer can be cured. So far, this appears
to be true in a few cases, but it is not yet known to
be a universal explanation. Also, effective targeting
of defective stem cells may be prevented by compensating
body feedback mechanisms.
Possible scientific findings can be confirmed
repeatedly under some set of circumstances, but under
different conditions cannot be repeated. They can be
modeled using known facts, but one is not sure if all
the relevant facts were used in the model. Scientists
may spend a few years investigating the possibilities,
and typically the evidence varies from study to study.
An example of a Possible
concept is the suggestion that brain tumors are caused
by cellphone transmissions. The effect, if it exists,
is small or nascent. Most studies show no correlation,
but a few show a mild linkage. Verging on Dubious,
but still Possible.
A Dubious concept is interesting enough to spend
some time in the lab investigating, but generally nothing
positive results. The greatest value of a Dubious
observation, is in its ability to reinforce our confidence
of what we do know.
An example of a Dubious
concept is Cold Fusion. While Cold Fusion began as a
Possible observation, the lack of confirming evidence
after very serious study transformed it to Dubious
A Fictional concept is inconsistent with observations
and well established, fundamental facts. Confirming
observations occur randomly, but are rarely repeated.
If the Fictional concept WERE true, vast settled
scientific knowledge would have to be overthrown, rather
than simply modified.
An example of a Fictional
concept is Astrology. While Astrology conforms to some
standards of science (e.g. makes testable predictions),
study after study proves its predictions are no better
This category is reserved for topics masquerading as
a scientific theory, but meeting none of the usual criteria
(testable, consistent with other known facts, refutable,
etc.). Such (un)scientific subjects include Creationism
and its brother "Intelligent Design", magic,
and any theory purporting to explain the universe before
the big bang. Up until recently, any theory of how the
mind worked was equally speculative- but over the last
hundred years new drugs, observational tools and careful
large population studies, have opened a window on the
mind that meets most scientific criteria.