“You know my theory is true,” said the grant-wielding scientist, “Because science is self-correcting.”
That statement is a fallacy because, of course, even supposing that science is self-correcting, there is no guarantee that this fellow’s theory has been self-corrected. It may still be gloriously, yet fundably, wrong.
Yes, fundably. For an associated fallacy is the My-Grant-Was-Funded-Therefore-My-Theory-Is-True fallacy, which is a cousin of the My-Paper-Was-Peer-Reviewed-Therefore-My-Theory-Is-True fallacy, which itself is a spawn of the ageless I’m-An-Expert-Therefore-My-Theory-Is-True fallacy.
There is thus a whiff of the appeal to authority in the Self-Correcting fallacy. But it (the SCF) is much more than that, as we’ll now see.
How did the SCF arise? It has been observed, in several historical cases, that Theory A, itself usually a consensus, has been supplanted eventually by Theory B, and that Theory B both explains previous observations and predicts new ones better than Theory A. Theory A is discarded and B embraced. Think about the progress of the models of an atom from Democritus to the (consensus!) Standard Model of today. A clear improvement: self-correction in action.
Incidentally, did you notice it? Self correcting. Science is not the collective work of individuals, but a living entity, a thing apart from people, a being capable of repairing itself—and capable of anger and susceptible of being appeased. But let this pass.
From the truth that some theories have been corrected, it does not follow that all theories have been, or eventually will be, corrected. If it were true that all theories have been self corrected, then there would be no error in science, there could not now exist theories which are wrong. We see theories that are wrong (like catastrophic global warming, which makes failed prediction after failed prediction, yet the theory is still welcomed), therefore not all theories have reached self correction.
Then to say that all theories will eventually be self corrected is a matter of faith and is not a deduction. Why? It can be possible that every theory to date has been improved, and will continue to be improved, but it does not follow that all new theories will also fit this paradigm.
Also, it has not been demonstrated that all theories now “in play” have been self-correcting. It could very well be, and there is some evidence to suggest, that some theories are racing down blind alleys, self-destructing, as it were. This usually happens when theories are based on a false philosophies—and all physics must first needs a philosophy. For example, that the “laws” of physics work everywhere and everywhen identically is a philosophical and not physical idea. Multiverses and many-worlds seem to be examples of blind-alley theories.
Scientism is also incapable of ultimate self-correction. Scientism is the false belief that all theories are ultimately scientific; i.e. it is a futile attempt at supplanting philosophy, but which is a religion which only succeeds in masquerading its philosophy.
But let these examples pass, because they are beside the point. What is true is that to say that all theories are capable of self-correction is a matter of faith and is not a deduction. Given mankind’s pertinacious grip of error, nothing would seem more obvious than some theories can be perpetually wrong.
The Self-Correcting Fallacy is rarely stated blankly as the scientist who insists he is right because Science is self-correcting. But it’s not too far off, either. How often have we heard the phrase “The Science is settled”? If the science is settled, it is not in need of self-correction, and is therefore purged of error. Or perhaps some small amount of error is allowed—which, it is assumed, will itself be self-corrected—but because science is self-correcting, theories that reach public awareness must be “good enough” already. This is obviously false.
What remains true is that each theory must be judged on its own merits, and not on the merits of its expounders or that it was capable of self-correction.
Lastly, there is also a whiff of arrogance in the SCF. Scientists boast of science making improvements, and imply that other intellectual endeavors do not share this superior attribute. This is ridiculously false, a belief which can only be the result of an ignorance of human thought. For instance, history routinely improves its understanding, and even theology improves in time. Even a cursory reading in, say, the theology of Christology confirms this.
Of course, history, theology, and other humanities are awful prone to blind alley theories, too. But we have already seen science is not immune to these. We leave with the wisdom of Max Planck:
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
Which is at least proof that not all scientists are capable of self-correction.