A while back, I had a conversation with friends about how undergraduate students understand and use the word “proof” when talking about knowing about the world. Echoing some of our conversation, a sociologist describes science:
I am a sociologist and read philosophy guardedly. As a social scientist, I tell my students again and again that while a theory or a sparkling generalization may be beautiful, the real test is always an “appeal to the empirical.” A proposition may be very appealing and may seem to provide powerful and enticing descriptions and understandings. However, until we gather evidence that shows that the proposition can be supported by information confirmed by the senses we must hold any proposition as one possibility among other competing explanations. Further, even when a theory or a set of ideas has been measured repeatedly against the empirical world, science never leads to certainty. Rather, science is always a modest enterprise. Even at its best and most rigorous, science is inherently “probabilistic” — we can have varying degrees of confidence in a finding, but certainty is not possible. As humans, our knowing is contingent and limited. Even the best designed scientific tests carry with them the possibility of disconfirmation in later tests. Science at its best offers acceptable levels of persuasiveness but cannot offer final conclusions.
Several things stand out to me in this explanation:
1. The appeal to data and weighing information versus existing explanations.
2. The lack of certainty in science and a probabilistic view of the world. Certainty here might be defined as “100% knowledge.” I think we can be functionally certain about some things. But the last bit about persausiveness is interesting.
3. Human knowledge is limited. There are always new things to learn, particularly about people and societies.
4. Scientific tests are undertaken to test existing theories and discover new information.
This sounds like a reasonable sociological perspective on science.