Science has a very naive understanding of ourselves and our universe because it can only discover correlations, not causation.
Science is built on skepticism. The results of any particular study mean nothing unless proven through continual repetition of the study's methodology. The importance of being able to replicate results is something instilled in every elementary school science student and yet as we enter adulthood we often tend to take with a great deal of faith any professions of scientific knowledge.
The number of papers published annually doubled every 9 years in the second half of the 20th century; the number of working scientists now doubles roughly every 18 years. So we might expect science today to be advancing at a breakneck pace. And so it is, but in a great many small steps, rather than giant leaps of understanding.
The primary methodology of science is to prise apart reality into its component parts in order to better understand how the whole functions. Cartesian logic began with the separation of mind and matter and the scientific method depends upon the separation of the observer from the observed. The absolute separation between mind and matter has now been shown to be entirely fictitious the importance of objectivity within the scientific method remains undiminished.
That's fine: science has always advanced in small steps, paving the way for occasional leaps. But sometimes fact-collecting yields nothing more than a collection of facts; no revelation follows. At such times, we need to step back from the facts we know and imagine alternatives: in other words, to ask "what if?"
That was how Albert Einstein broke the bind in which physics found itself in the early 20th century. His conception of a scenario that received wisdom deemed impossible -- that light's speed is always the same, regardless of how you look at it -- led to special relativity and demolished what we thought we knew about space and time.
Now physics finds itself at an impasse again -- and some physicists are reimagining the impossible, from revisiting the speed of light to dreaming up antimatter worlds. Their hope is that such what-if scenarios may provide coherent explanations for facts we have diligently collected but don't understand.
Physics isn't the only field that might benefit from a judicious dose of what-iffery. Attempts to understand consciousness are also just inching forward. We know anaesthetics can turn our awareness off, but not how they do so. What if the answer lies not in their chemistry, as is usually thought, but in physics?
Despite its dependence on hard evidence, science is a creative discipline. That creativity needs nurturing, even in this age of performance targets and impact assessments. Scientist need to flex their imaginations, too.
Science still commands respect. But its privileged status is founded on the capacity to be right most of the time and to correct its mistakes when it gets things wrong. The problem is, science can only become an expert at what it knows rather than what it doesn't. With quantum experiments and tools making their way into the research base, it will soon be time for science to step out of the box to examine what it never thought it could fine at the lowest levels of magnification.
"Let us dare to dream," the chemist August Kekule once suggested, "and then perhaps we may learn the truth."