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Scientific passions

May 29th, 2014 Posted in Curmudgeonry

Forty days have passed quickly and the feasting is over, so I suppose I should start putting together words again. When it’s not on this novel I’m revising, my writing mind has been on science—on the art that is genuine science, and the bullying that is scientism, and our persistent modern confusion of the two. I recently wrote an essay over on the Image Good Letters channel, in response to science popular Neil deGrasse Tyson’s claim that philosophy is irrelevant. Here’s an excerpt:

When you delve into the history of science, you don’t find a phalanx of impassive researchers asking questions, gathering data, and methodically testing hypotheses. You find visionaries—the scientists who make history, anyway—gripped by insights that precede their scientific tests. “Eureka,” Archimedes is said to have shouted, as he leaped from the bathtub where he first intuited a means of precisely measuring the volume of irregular objects. Eureka: I have found. His belief about reality preceded the proof.

Likewise did a PhD student named Louis de Broglie argue—with insufficient empirical data—that electron particles have physical waves. Albert Einstein, when Broglie’s skeptical thesis advisors wrote asking his opinion about the student’s theory, urged them to pass him, based on the elegance of his work. His theoryfelt right. A few years later the data emerged, and a couple of years after that, Broglie received the Nobel Prize in Physics.

“Only a tiny fraction of all knowable facts are of interest to scientists,” wrote scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi. A scientist’s decision about what to explore—what drives him to the doorstep of the Scientific Method we were taught as children—is something altogether ignored by that method, but critical nonetheless to discovery: what Polanyi called “a sense of intellectual beauty.” Scientific discovery is, Polanyi believed, an emotional response to glimpses of an undiscovered reality. A scientist is very much like an artist in that regard.

Somehow we’ve gotten the notion into our heads that discovery stems from breaking down things into parts, and those parts into parts, and we’ve concocted a myth that scientific truth is simply a matter of applying impartial measures to these micro-parts, when discovery has always entailed human judgment, and a sense of rightness, and of elegance, and other concepts that resist micro-splitting, all of which are dependent on culture, and philosophy, and other messy packages.

There’s so much to be unpacked there, from how we approach global warming and evolution theory, to how we teach our children. And I confess 90 percent of the reason I care is because of the pervasive smugness of people like Tyson, and Stephen Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, and their refusal to understand how rooted they are in their own biases and philosophies. It just makes for, well, bad science. So in that, I like to think I’m actually pro-science in my anti-scientism. Anyway, here’s a link to the Good Letters essay if you’re interested.


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