Fact: there are no facts

“In science, there is no such thing as a fact”.

The words uttered by my second year Conservation Biology lecturer left a resounding echo in my mind which till this day, continues to linger. He went on to explain how the purpose of endeavours in science and research are to present us with questions rather than answers. How the closest we will ever come to ‘truth’ is the uncertain ‘theory’. Our grand calling as scientists he said, was to question everything, to accept nothing as infallible and to constantly push the boundaries of our understanding of the universe.

I found this philosophy as beautiful as I did terrifying. Despite the inquiring environment in which my parents raised me, my religious upbringing was still a function of certain dogmatisms and absolutes. As children our limited ability to question and extrapolate inadvertently leads to a certain unconscious system of beliefs that, unless challenged, will shape our lives as adults. So, when I heard the statement, “there is no such thing as fact”, my first instinct was to internally resist the bizarre notion. He was wrong, I told myself. The existence of God and a seven-day creation, that was a fact. He may not agree with me on that subject but surely gravitational theory and Newton’s laws of motion? Surely these were facts! Surely, we could say that science had ‘proven’ gravity! However, despite my initial response the idea had planted its seed in my mind.

I have since learned of many instances throughout human history where our science has been inaccurate if not flat out incorrect. From the concept of spontaneous generation and the flat earth theory through to our ever-evolving understanding of evolution, atomic theory and quantum mechanics.  Scientists and philosophers such as Galileo, Rhazes and Servetus were persecuted by religious contemporaries for their unorthodox perspectives. Numerous ground-breaking theories and discoveries were initially rejected by the main-stream scientific community who opted for tradition and the cognitive security blanket of current scientific ‘truths’. The ‘rejected’ theories included: Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift; Mendel’s genetic inheritance model; Copernicus’s heliocentric solar system; and Avogadro’s law. How different our world would be today had we not eventually allowed these theories to be accepted into our scientific understanding.

My decision to title my blog, “I am Iconoclast” was no mere catch phrase or slogan but more of a maxim. An Iconoclast can be defined as, “a person who strongly opposes generally accepted beliefs and traditions.” Synonyms include critic, skeptic and questioner. Though normally employed with negative connotation the word appealed to me as a scientist, as one who constantly seeks deeper truth. I believe an iconoclast is a person who fights for truth – who loathes the idea of ideological stagnation and dogmatism. If we do not question our world how do we progress? And that is in every sense. Scientifically, socially, politically and personally. I reject the notion that certain topics should not be discussed and that certain perspectives should not be voiced. I believe human progression is limited the moment we deem it necessary to silence conversation and debate. Through challenging the status-quo we find the questions we should be asking, the trajectory to progression.

There is no such thing as fact. Only the never-ending quest for new questions.


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