Can science ever be “settled”? (Synopsis)

“All the problems of the world could be settled easily if men were only willing to think. The trouble is that men very often resort to all sorts of devices in order not to think, because thinking is such hard work.”  -Thomas J. Watson

You’ll frequently hear people say, “the science is settled.” Scientifically speaking, can it ever be? (And yes, what follows below is meant to be an inflammatory image.)

Image credit: Ramirez of the Weekly Standard, via Image credit: Ramirez of the Weekly Standard, via

Let's take a look at five major instances -- gravitation, evolution, the Big Bang, germ theory and global warming -- and look at whether or not it's fair to say that the science is settled, and what unsettling discoveries would do (and have done) to such ideas.

Image credit: Miloslav Druckmüller, via Image credit: Miloslav Druckmüller, via

The answer isn't that the "settled" part is invalidated, but rather that — if we want to better describe our Universe — an advancement in science (and a better, more complete understanding of natural phenomena) is what leads us forward.

Go read the whole thing over at Medium, and don't be afraid to weigh in here!

More like this

I think you should keep global warming out of your blogs Ethan. It isn't cosmology. When Phil Plait does it, it comes over as preaching and screeching. Painful.

And aaaaaagh! You said Newtonian gravity must be replaced by Einstein’s general relativity, which relies on the curvature of space. It's curved spacetime. See the last paragraph of this Baez article. And as for explaining why things fall down, Newton didn't, and nor did Einstein. So even gravity is less settled than you think.

By John Duffield (not verified) on 06 Mar 2014 #permalink

I think you should keep John Duffield out of your blogs Ethan. He isn’t cosmology, and he comes over as preaching and screeching. Painful.

@#1: I disagree. It's always amusing to see John's consistently wrong take on relativity. It's rather like an old record player stuck in one spot on an album.

Regardless of the reader's beliefs/faith in "global warming" it is increasingly apparent that the IPCC is simply not a credible organization, scientifically or politically. The politicization of science is what is really tragic because it undermines trust in the institution broadly, all in the name of making energy much more expensive.…

I think its hilarious how some people think they have the right to tell anyone what to write on their blog.

Regardless of the reader’s beliefs/faith in “global warming” it is increasingly apparent that the IPCC is simply not a credible organization, scientifically or politically

Well, if you ignore all the evidence and data they (and other scientists around the world) have, then yeah, you can make that statement. Those who live in the real world shouldn't do that.

Ran across the article on Medium via Fark. Got to the last paragraph before I realized it was Ethan. Good read!

The thing is that any new scientific theory also has to explain 100% of the things that the thing it replaces was able to explain. Relativity is a great example of that. It replaced Newton's laws and did so by precisely mimicking the results of Newton's laws at all but the very highest speeds and gravitational fields. The only areas where it replaced it were areas that had not been adequately tested experimentally, such as the way light bends around a star.

So, you can't say that global warming is replaced by some new theory unless that theory also explains why the earth is warming and why it's so closely correlated with the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Hence any replacement theory isn't likely to say that we don't have to worry about burning coal anymore.

It's a similar deal with evolution - sure, there are things we're learning about the way inheritance works that suggests that Lamarkism is not entirely wrong - but this new variation on evolution can't just say "God Did It" because that's inconsistent with the discoveries and experiments that we already know are true. The modified theory still has to show that humans still descended from apes because that's what the experimental evidence clearly demonstrates.

So, yeah - science may never be 100% settled - 100% true - but each change to an existing theory is going to be a smaller and smaller tweak resulting in less and less difference between what the new theory predicts and what the old one so successfully laid out.

By Steve Baker (not verified) on 07 Mar 2014 #permalink

Perhaps settled should just be dropped from the vocabulary? It worked when my father told me something was settled, and my father was a great scientist, but he never used it in the same sentence with science. Another term that should be dropped is consensus, natural laws are never subject to a vote.

There is a lot of exciting stuff going on in climate science today. If researchers need to be afraid of violating the mob rule, then advances will be stifled. Since climate warming became an issue we've learned a lot we didn't know when it first became a consensus and settled. We should NEVER settle for settled.

With respect to the comic, I would argue that the first five ideas were never considered to be "settled science." Some of the ideas were simply human intuition, shown by science to be incorrect, and the fifth was speculation fueled by mainstream media attention. Being published in Time Magazine does not constitute being "settled." Current data collection, statistical analysis, and modeling of various possibilities of current climate change convinces me, an admitted non-expert, that the issue is as settled as nearly as it can possibly be, and the more people- cosmologists and otherwise- who push and advocate for measures to minimize and avoid its worst consequences, the better. It is the greatest danger the human race currently faces.

"Yet there are some scientific facts surrounding the climate that are settled: one is that the Earth has been warming and continues to warm significantly,..."

Warming? Not in the last 15 years or so.
Significantly? What does that mean?

Warming? Not in the last 15 years or so.

Sorry, but that is as wrong as it gets. Try reading the research instead of denialist drivel.

What to me is most interesting about this article is the variety of science under discussion. There is the science that posits a theory, tests that theory under experimentation and either validates, adjusts or discards the theory based on the observed results. Then there is the science that is story telling, that can never be subjected to controlled experimentation and at best gets by on experimenting on a portion of the theory to validate the whole thing. That isn't the same as the former though both are called science. Dark matter is postulated because without it the damn cosmic accounts won't balance. Something is wrong in the theory and eventually we will get to a theory that doesn't need exotic filler. Also it is worth remembering that "Big Bang" was a derisive term applied by the defenders of the then prevailing theory.

Geologic time climate has had greater variation than the period since the Industrial Revolution. A theory that places primacy on mankind's actions should be derided as hopelessly anthropocentric and not even dignified as science any more than Mesmer's animal magnetism or phrenology.

By juris imprudent (not verified) on 08 Mar 2014 #permalink

Why truncate the graph at 2010?

Thanks for this clear explanation, from a wide variety of areas of science, Ethan.

I often come across self proclaimed "climate skeptics" who claim that "the science is not settled". I will try to use your examples to explain how the issue is much more interesting than a simple slogan, though I expect that their eyes will glaze over as such people are not really interested in science.

I suspect that one of the reasons that you and Phil Plait (among others) write on Climate Science is that your area of expertise has suffered attacks from "creation scientists" that are similar to the attacks on Climate Science from so called "climate skeptics" - ie solidarity with other scientists who are also suffering sustained and dishonest attacks.

By Stephen Spencer (not verified) on 08 Mar 2014 #permalink


The thing is that any new scientific theory also has to explain 100% of the things that the thing it replaces was able to explain.

No, not really. Nobody can even calculate the QMical state of a cannonball in order to test whether QM would predict the exact same cannonball behavior as NM does. Science is pretty content accepting that QM is a more accurate model of the world based on the fact that when we can compare the two theories (i.e., at the micro scale), NM gets things drastically wrong while QM gets them amazingly right. But that is far, far short of 100% coverage.

One piece of science that is settled is that the last million years have seen long periods of cold, during which Canada was entirely covered in ice, punctuated by shorter warm periods. We are currently in one of the warm periods. No one has a satisfactory explanation for these excursions. Simply judging by past history, it would appear that we should expect another cold spell fairly soon, as the current warm spell has already lasted longer than average. To claim that the Earth is in danger of catastrophic warming is to claim that these fluctuations, whose cause is unknown, have ceased. I do not see how anyone can call such a claim "scientific". It extrapolates the results of an interesting but untested micromodel to the macro scale, in the absence of any convincing macromodel. It is equivalent to saying, "I have lit a match, and therefore the room is about to get warmer", without noticing that the windows are open and it's getting colder outside.

"No one has a satisfactory explanation for these excursions."

Other than Milankovitch?

Can has better trolls?

If you are not familiar with the term post-normal science, then please enlighten yourself. It makes a big difference in how you see 21st century science!

When you censor or silence opposing viewpoints in science or any other subject for that matter, it is easy to see how the argument could be made that there is consensus of thought and opinion. There are however, informed views that differ from your own, and if you are going to pretend they don't exist, or dismiss them as crackpots outright, you have abandoned the basis of the scientific method in favor of political expediency.
Perhaps if you knew why many scientists disagree with your position, you might better appreciate their skepticism of AGW and the actual motivations of its political advocates.

This video actually addresses quite few of the questions and points raised on your blog about climate science, the IPCC, ice core sample studies, CO2 as a greenhouse forcer, correlation vs. causality, research funding, scientific censorship, computer climate modeling, and scientific rigor. If you believe your present position on these subjects is 'incontrovertible', you should still take a look, then afterwards you will at least know why some experts disagree with your position and you might be better informed to debate their counter assertions.

I'd like to coin a new acronym: hits of no worth (HONW). Used in a sentence: "Writing posts about the evidence for AGW generates a large uptick in HONW."

Great post. You say it better than I could; I'll send a link rather than try to make the argument myself.

But note that
"deceleration due to atmospheric drag depends on an object’s surface-area-to-mass ratio, and heavier objects have smaller ratios than lighter ones."
is just simplistic and wrong.

I am into space the frist day I done it I had a big folder full of facts and the most one I think that NASA is a very good one to studded on because the facts are very good and I am the most person that know about space thank you for lisening to my rubis xxxxxx

By katie simpson (not verified) on 16 Mar 2014 #permalink

What bothers me is that when any given scientific "notion" is presented as pure fact and/or as settled and any thoughts to the contrary are flogged for their contrary belief. This goes back to flogging those that thought maybe the earth was NOT the center of the universe up to todays climate debate where "deniers" are flogged (virtually or otherwise) for their beliefs. The point is this "flogging" has been going on since man first looked up and asked a question. The fact that who has been doing the flogging has switched is fascinating…but not really the point.

I consider the Big Bang especially disturbing as I grew up being taught that the Heavens were “eternal” (steady state model). While there might have been an asterisk in my 7th grade science book saying this steady-state was a “theory” it sure was not presented that way. The answer to "how old the universe was was 'none of the above' and not a specific age.

This pushing of the steady-state theory really impacted my religious beliefs where I would go to church and the first words read where “In the beginning…”. Well science just told me there was no beginning- so this Bible thing must be wrong. (Again, from the perspective of a 7th grader). So, years later my kids are taught there was a beginning. Huh.

By Ned Ryerrson (not verified) on 09 Apr 2014 #permalink


What you are complaining about is a FEATURE of science, not a problem. The steady state theory was accepted because it explained all the evidence available at the time. However, NEW evidence indicated that it was wrong, most notably observation of the cosmic microwave background and the red shift. These new observations led to the realization that the steady state model (it was NEVER a theory; that word means something different than you seem to think it does) was wrong. Realizing that the currently accepted hypothesis is wrong, scientists developed a new hypothesis, namely the big bang, (which BTW has been fundamentally modified since then).

Now, I realize that religious people believe that their religious beliefs can NEVER be wrong, but what if they are? Science has a method for detecting and correcting incorrect theories. Where is the analogous procedure in religion for recognizing and correcting incorrect beliefs? Again, I realize that you think your beliefs are 100% correct, but there are other people with contradictory beliefs who also believe that they are 100% correct. For instance, (I will assume from clues in your post that you are a Christian), you believe that Jesus of Nazereth was the son of God. Most of the world does not believe this. (I know that it's a shock to most Christians, but the majority of the population of the world is non-Christian). What is the procedure for determining which set of beliefs is correct? Nothing in the Bible will cut it; the majority of the world's population does not recognize the Bible as authoritative. Try to understand: I am not asking why you personally think your beliefs are correct; I am asking how a disinterested third party could determine whether your beliefs or those of the majority of the world's popluation are correct.


Of course it has. Anything the denialists can come up with is summarily debunked pretty quickly. Skeptical Science and Real Climate are pretty good sites for quickly checking claims. I really don't know why they bother anymore the evidence is stacking up that they are flogging a dead horse.

By Doug Little (not verified) on 24 Sep 2014 #permalink

Your typo in the climate change section

we believe that human causes can do that at well. But where is that “tipping point,”

Caused me to lose focus on the article and confidence in what you were saying.

By Bob Politicalb… (not verified) on 07 Dec 2015 #permalink