|Dr James E Enstrom|
epidemiologist at the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Centre at the University of California in Los Angeles
The pursuit of truth to the greatest extent possible, using the scientific method
The single most important thing about science is the pursuit of truth to the greatest extent possible, using the scientific method. This pursuit must be tempered with the realisation that the extent to which truth can be attained varies greatly among the different disciplines of science.
In physics, for instance, it is possible to design and conduct precise, highly controlled experiments, that can be independently verified. This rigorous methodology makes it possible to measure the mass of an electron, to an accuracy of better than one part per million, and to establish clear causal relationships in fundamental physical phenomena. In epidemiology, on the other hand, it is necessary to use imprecise observational techniques, to study humans. These non-experimental methods make it very difficult to accurately measure a potentially toxic exposure, and to establish a casual relationship between the exposure and a chronic disease that develops decades later.
The pursuit of truth is so important, because it is the only way that scientific advances can be made. New research on a particular scientific issue must not be inhibited or compromised, because a consensus about the issue currently exists. Science is not about consensus, but about accurate findings that can be independently verified.
There are many instances where the truth on a scientific issue has evolved over time. For example, Albert Einstein made a major contribution to the evolution of scientific knowledge, when he discovered the special theory of relativity. The classical laws of motion, set down by Isaac Newton in 1687, stood as correct for over 200 years. In 1905, however, Einstein showed that these laws are not valid at velocities approaching the speed of light - although they are essentially correct for ordinary, non-relativistic motion.
It is vital that the pursuit of truth in all areas of science continue, unimpeded by non-scientific considerations such as popularity and politics.