Gaps in Scientific Knowledge Doesn't Justify Pseudoscience
Be wary of logical fallacies used to promote alternative approaches to health.
Posted April 6, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
"Problems with pharma don't mean that quackery works. Problems in aircraft design do not mean that magic carpets can actually fly." —Dr. Ben Goldacre
If you hang around enough in social circles where alternative approaches to health are promoted, you will soon come to hear a common theme: “Science doesn’t have all of the answers.”
This is true, of course. Science can never have all of the answers because it is a multi-faceted philosophical construct that is perhaps most simply understood as both an accumulating body of knowledge as well as a method of inquiry. The right attitude of a scientist is to be skeptical—not cynical—of claims and to question everything. As a result of this process, the scientist can’t help but to approach claims with humility.
But this is almost beside the point when you hear, “Science doesn’t have all of the answers.” Very typically, when you hear that phrase, you can place a safe bet that it is likely being used not only as an abused trope but also as a way to forward an argument to push a pseudoscientific agenda.
Take homeopathy, for example. Homeopathy is widely and unequivocally considered by medical experts to be a discredited approach to health because it violates the laws of physics and fundamental principles in pharmacology and biochemistry. For this reason, the practice of homeopathy by regulated health professionals is appropriately considered to be unethical. And yet, you will often hear proponents of homeopathy promote the therapy in part by issuing the statement, “Science doesn’t have all of the answers.”
This kind of rhetoric is reminiscent of a logical fallacy—called God-of-the-gaps—that has historically been used by religious apologetics to argue for the existence of God. The fallacy is invoked when proponents claim that God can explain the knowledge gaps that are currently unexplainable by science. For example, it is said that Newton attributed the intervention of God to particular irregularities in planetary motion that he could not explain by his theory of gravity. Once physicists and astronomers were able to provide a natural explanation for the previously unexplained phenomenon, God was no longer necessary.
In a similar vein, proponents of pseudoscientific therapies often employ the same underlying sentiment of the God-of-the-gaps fallacy—though "God" as an explanatory variable is replaced by "Science." The implicit intention of the phrase “Science doesn’t have all of the answers” is that science will come to one day fill the gaps. It is a play on the God-of-the-gaps fallacy. It is a science-of-the-gaps fallacy that is used to justify unsupported claims.
While it is true—and the point—that medical science is constantly evolving and that gaps will indeed be filled, the fallacy is often used to promote alternative approaches to health that are clearly and scientifically baseless, such as homeopathy and energy healing.
Indeed, with allusion to Dr. Ben Goldacre’s quote at the beginning of this article, there's a Grand-Canyon-sized difference between "Science doesn't have all of the answers" and "Magic carpet rides are real.” The existence of many unanswered scientific questions doesn’t justify the promotion of pseudoscience.
The next time that you hear someone say, “Science doesn’t have all of the answers,” you might want to question exactly what they mean.