"Although this may seem a paradox, all exact science is dominated by the idea of approximation. When a man tells you that he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man."
- Bertrand Russell in "The Scientific Outlook" (1931)
My own ideas on the quote:
The idea presented in this quote may seem even odd at first glance. We simply have often learned to see science as something very exact and rigid. The current central findings of science are too often falsely presented as some kind of absolute truths. This can happen for example in schools.
This is the case, even if this kind of thinking is exactly the opposite of the true scientific method. True science does not have any final truths. There just must always exist the possibility to take every single scientific fact and theory under new scrutiny.
It is always possible to modify and correct any single one of the old theories, if they prove to be wrong in some way. For example, also the current theory of gravity will be corrected, if there emerges new data on its nature. This can well happen even if this theory has been quite unchanged and unchallenged for a very long time.
Science gives good, great and even magnificent answers about the most important questions concerning human life and the universe. However, they never are final and unchanging.
As Bertrand Russell says, science is art of approximation that is based on available facts. As the facts do change, must the answers given by science change too. Of course, a degree of rigidity is inbuilt in this system. To change even any of the most well-established scientific findings one needs just to have compelling new evidence. Getting them accepted can be a tedious and long job.
This inbuilt inertia, however, makes sure that the central scientific explanations do not change in a whim of a single genius. The international scientific community makes thorough checks on all new ideas before they are universally accepted.
However, Bertrand Russell is here referring to those who claim to have found exact and final answers to the big questions concerning, for example, the nature of life and the universe. They are, however, normally not scientists at all, but followers of different kinds of religious and other strong ideologies that claim to know the 'final truth', which is of course different in every single ideology.
(This piece was refurbished on 12th of November, 2011)
Bertrand Russell is also in Facebook at:
"Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) was a Welsh philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian, and social critic."