Science is not about certainty

That is the title of an interesting article in The New Republic by the theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. I read it mostly because it had been quote-mined by Elizabeth Mitchell here. Professor Rovelli’s article was perhaps a bit windy, and I could take issue with some of his discussion, but it was not all that hard to understand. One of his main points is that science has been extremely successful and any new theory will have to reduce to existing theory in the appropriate limit:

[W]hat we’ve learned in the past is our main ingredient—especially the negative things we’ve learned. If we’ve learned that the Earth is not flat, there will be no theory in the future in which the Earth is flat. If we have learned that the Earth is not at the center of the universe, that’s forever. We’re not going to go back on this. If you’ve learned that simultaneity is relative, with Einstein, we’re not going back to absolute simultaneity, like many people think.

In other words, creationism and other crackpot theories are wrong because they deny “what we’ve learned the past” and do not subsume existing, highly successful theories.

Dr. Mitchell, who is not overly cautious about getting her quotations exactly right, comes away with

[…] the deepest misunderstanding about science […] is the idea that science is about certainty. Science is not about certainty. Science is about finding the most reliable way of thinking at the present level of knowledge. Science is extremely reliable; it’s not certain.

Professor Rovelli goes on to say,

Scientific ideas are credible not because they are sure but because they’re the ones that have survived all the possible past critiques, and they’re the most credible because they were put on the table for everybody’s criticism.

He nevertheless evidently fails to understand the unsupported assertion that

[t]he Bible is the revelation of our Creator God to mankind. The eternal God of the Bible, our Creator, was the eyewitness to all of history. Nothing that He has told us in His Word contradicts the information, the data, gathered by experimental science.

I can only conclude that, in Dr. Mitchell’s eyes, empirical science is uncertain, whereas a preconceived religious belief cannot be doubted.