Comment, Comics and the Contrary.
On April 7th, The Guardian published a short list of things “everyone should learn about science”
, selecting the “most provocative responses” to a survey of 250 scientists conducted by the magazine Spiked. And the list has, belatedly, provoked me. I will only comment on a handful of the replies, and sketch out my disagreements.
We will begin at the beginning; being a scientist.Seth Lloyd Professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
You do not have to be a scientist to do science; you can be a child, a computer, or an intelligent rat. As long as you can verify a result, it is part of science.
Science is not simply the measurement of things, or the collection of data. It is also the process of attempting explain how these measurements, these data, fit together. This process is an imaginative act. If you contest this point you must concede that the great scientists of the past are nothing of the sort, that the knowledge that they produced could have been produced by anyone else measuring the objects and collecting that data. The task of asking the question is an imaginative act, the task of choosing how to measure the objects or collect the data is an imaginative act, and the interpretation of the data is an imaginative act. So it is wrong to say that a computer could carry out these tasks, unless he is engaging in speculative science fiction. And his further example of the intelligent rat proves that he is. You might not have to be a scientist to do science. But you do, at the moment and for the foreseeable future, have to be human.
And this is before we get into the tacit knowledge and craft knowledge that is a part of all scientific practice.Lewis Wolpert Emeritus professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London
I would teach the world that science is the best way to understand the world, and that for any set of observations, there is only one correct explanation. Also, science is value-free, as it explains the world as it is. Ethical issues arise only when science is applied to technology — from medicine to industry. (My italics)
This is plain incorrect. Science does not only connect with values and ethics at the ‘end’ point – at the connection of scientific knowledge to technology and other applications. There are an infinite number of questions that we can ask about the universe, and many ways of framing each of these questions. The questions that we choose, and how we choose to answer these questions, reflect our society and our ethical and political values. This simple truth must always be remembered when we are discussing research into human behaviour. People will ask; “why not attempt to determine differences in intelligence between ‘races’?” But this question prejudices the answer, and the very asking of this question has an impact on society. You might say; “So what, so it should.” But you cannot deny that the act of asking this question is loaded with ethical and moral weight.Antony Hoare Senior researcher at Microsoft Corporation
I would teach the world that scientists start by trying very hard to disprove what they hope is true. When they fail, they have a good reason for believing what they hope is true, and can even convince others of its truth. A scientist always acknowledges the possibility of error, and is less likely to be mistaken than one who always claims to be right. (My italics)Dr Robert Maynard Senior medical officer at the UK Department of Health
The principle of refutation put forward by the philosopher Karl Popper, in his books The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Conjectures and Refutations, is my choice. Popper argued that scientific knowledge advanced most reliably by the development and refutation of hypotheses — much more reliably than by the accretion of evidence in support of theories. [He then discusses the ‘white swans and black swans’ example of refutation].
Individual scientists do not start by trying to disprove what they hope is true. At least, not in the hopelessly idealised view of science that Antony Hoare presents here. Any study of the practice of science makes a mockery of this statement. I would argue that statements like this, which may have served the purpose of maintaining the institution of science in a less iconoclastic age, now are seen as disingenuous defences of science against criticism. But science does not need to hide behind a myth. It can point quite clearly to the power of science in our manipulation of the physical world, and can, at the same time, acknowledge the limitations of both our knowledges and our methods.
It would be better if when discussing these ideal(ised) forms of science scientists limited these values to the institution of science, rather than to individual scientists. There would be more truth in such an argument.John McCarthy Emeritus professor of computer science at Stanford University, and inventor of the term 'artificial intelligence'
Find the numbers, and compare them. As the physicist Lord Kelvin said in 1883, in a lecture to the Institution of Civil Engineers, "when you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind".
Well, what would you expect from a computer scientist? But numbers are not the best form of representation across all science, as biological scientists will tell you. Indeed, John Sulston, the leader of the UK arm of the Human Genome Project, who is also represented in this list, offers an anecdote in his book The Common Thread where he has to convince a mathematically minded disciplinary immigrant to the biological sciences that his drawings of nematode worm cell lineages were a valuable form of data in themselves. To deny that they were, or to suggest that they are amenable to ‘numberisation’, is to be either deliberately contrary or seriously myopic. Of course, the images could be digitised, but to be returned to a state of value to human understanding (and remember, this is the point of science), they must be retranslated into visual images.
There were plenty of responses that I had no quarrel with, and plenty of valuable insights into science. One that I did like was this reply:Kathy Sykes Collier professor of public engagement in science and engineering at the University of Bristol
I would teach the world that science is not about truth, but is about trying to get closer to the truth. This is important because, too often, people look to scientists as having the "truth". What we have is wrapped in uncertainties, caveats and simplifications.
And with that I will finish the post.