IN theory, science is a failure. In practice, it works; in product, it soars. Yet because scientific product depends on practice, which in turn depends on theory, it is vital that scientists understand how and why science fails.
Science has a long, rich history that practising scientists often overlook. Modern scientists proudly herald the enterprise of science as logical (reasoned), yet since science's earliest stirrings more than 2000 years ago, various thinkers have maintained this logic is flawed.
Even so, it wasn't until 1739 that Scottish thinker David Hume drove the point home by specifying that modern science is inherently illogical, because it relies in part on assumed theories that must reach beyond what we can ever observe.
This has profound implications: the very foundations of science are infirm. Yet, understandably, in his day Hume's concern fell largely on deaf ears of those more interested in reaping rewards of practical science at the birth of the industrial revolution.
It wasn't until the mid to late-20th century that science historians Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend looked back across 400 years of astonishing scientific achievement to conclude that it was precisely the theoretical shortcomings of science that forced scientists to be more liberal in practice.
They proposed that Copernicus and Galileo, for example, boldly stepped outside the limits of logic to garner support for their theories within the science community.
Such activities imply an inherently social aspect to science, although the degree to which "opposing communities of scientists" drive theory change remains contentious. But, at least, such work shows that science does not simply equate with reason.
Today, practising scientists may dismiss these issues as unimportant, but this is a sheer mistake.
The standard view is that science's problems may be generalised thus: we can never be 100 per cent sure in truth, even of scientific theories, because of the limits imposed by our human observations of the world.
Yet if we give this fundamental problem credence, our pursuit of scientific "truth" becomes challenging indeed.
Most science practitioners conclude that paying anything more than lip service to Hume's problem is futile, a stymie to progressing knowledge.
More controversially, if we push the notion of a "social" aspect to science championed by Kuhn and Feyerabend to its limit, we may view every scientist as inherently subjective, plying any given scientific theory only via their private world. We then have cause to wonder: if each person has his or her own valid mode of doing science, could there be as many methods of science as there are scientists?
For many modern thinkers both in and out of science, this goes too far. Yet in any case, for practical reasons it surely will not do, since science is a public pursuit needing a unified approach.
But why must we settle for the naive objective dogma championed by some scientists that runs counter to a view of smug, subjective impracticality expressed by certain science critics? Both extremes are perilous. Instead, why don't we explore the oft-ignored middle ground?
No matter how we try, we cannot be truly objective as science so sternly demands because we cannot escape our frailty as human navigators piloting the helm of scientific exploration. The scientific approach we use today is arbitrary, albeit steeped in history, and since it is also flawed, we must find out if there is a better one. Science works, but if we don't know how, can we ever hope to improve it?
It is true that in essence, issues raised by the likes of Hume are general problems, but we may not blithely ignore them. There is only one certainty: we won't discover any alternatives if we simply ignore science's limitations.
Human knowledge itself is at stake. Consider that the field of physics now struggles mightily in search of a unifying theory to understand our world.
In its relentless search for truth, physics has delved into the "unseen" sub-atomic world where science as we presently define it does not easily fit. In this unseen physical world, which we may investigate only indirectly through experiment, we witness the limitations of humanity starkly exposed; experimental results may differ depending on whether we observe operating equipment or not.
This suggests our very act of "observing" changes the world, a notion hearkening back 2500 years to the ancient Greek thinker Plato, who maintained that everything we observe is merely a decaying version of its true form.
Mysterious stuff. It may well require a complete rethink of science and reason to make inroads into this realm of knowledge.
I hold concerns that deep questioning of "how we know" in science, sketched in rough outline above, is rarely encountered at university or high school. Indeed, recent years have seen the closing of many university arts faculties across the globe where explorations into the vibrant history of scientific knowledge were traditionally undertaken.
Teaching curricula at all levels of education have been "rationalised". Some few scattered university departments or schoolteachers with initiative remain, valiantly flying a tattered flag to the honour of a fallen scientific ideal.
Scientists, now more than ever, in their dual role as researchers and teachers, must take responsibility for producing our next generation of deep scientific thinkers. Yet who else is more qualified to examine the method of science and practically apply such knowledge?
There couldn't be a timelier wake-up call for science than this year, which marks the 150th anniversary of Darwin's landmark publication On the Origin of Species.
Without doubt, we must celebrate our scientific success story. But just as surely, scientists must promote their ongoing struggle to understand and explain what it means to be scientific.
In doing so, we hope to improve science's explanatory method, which may ultimately make our enterprise more successful.
Of course, we needn't renounce our present method until an alternative is available. Neither should all scientists focus their career on searching for the alternative; a diverse science is most valuable.
But by encouraging our students to grapple with the deepest problems of science, we empower them with education's liberty of choice and the necessary tools to forge a stronger scientific future for us all.
Andrew Baker, author of Questions of Science (forthcoming from Pearson Prentice Hall) lectures in environmental science at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.