“False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, for everyone takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.”
Charles Darwin, The Origins of Man, Chapter 6
Darwin’s reflection introduces this blog for several reasons. First, the world has just celebrated the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth. He’s been on our minds. And in the process, we’ve been reminded that he was not just (stereotype alert!) a great scientist, but a complex, human figure, in many respects very much like you and me.
Second, and far more substantively, “the progress of science” is highly germane to our lives today, when science has shouldered a high-profile role in real-world affairs. We should care about the progress of science!
That hasn’t always been the case. Look to the past. For most of human experience – dating back a few hundred thousand years, give or take – science has been a mere sideline. The thought processes of scientists weren’t all that well publicized, and indeed weren’t all that rigorous.
Take the great physicians Hippocrates (ca. 460 BC – ca.370 BC) and Galen (ca 130 AD – ca 200 AD). Hippocrates saw disease as a product of environment, diet, and lifestyle (no germ theory there, but at least a germ of truth), while Galen supposed that the function of the heart was to heat the body (consistent with the cooling of bodies to room temperature after death but otherwise grossly misleading). The two of them, and others of ancient times, were developing the rudiments of “the scientific method” even as they tried to draw conclusions about the nature of the real world. Back then, and even up until the last century or so, science was largely privately supported. Science was the hobby of those rich enough to indulge, or those willing to live in poverty in order to “support their habit.” Darwin himself was apparently largely funded by his father, enjoying only intermittent support from other sources. His studies at Cambridge were aimed at preparing him to be an Anglican parson.
Private support had disadvantages, but one advantage it offered was that scientists of independent means were answerable largely to themselves alone, and were accordingly free to pursue their own interests, on their own schedule.
Increasingly, though, science (and its next-of-kin, technology) started to matter. Governments began funding research and development, first in an ad hoc manner, and then under a more formal policy framework. World War II is often cited as a milestone, although the United States and other nations certainly had prior policies toward science. But today, by any measure, science is big. And because science is today pivotal in human affairs, it joins all those other salient things, and ideas, and ways of business; it becomes a subject for public debate and argument (as Darwin suggests). Today, science is contentious. Not just views but facts are in dispute. And scientists owe it to the public, who is footing the bill, to engage, and to favor certain topics over others, and to recognize that some research is rather urgent. We can’t remain aloof – or loaf along.
The third reason this quote leads off? Rather more personal. I first ran across this line back around 1970 when it introduced Palmen and Newton’s new book, Atmospheric Circulation Systems. Maybe Darwin’s observation didn’t change my life, but it has certainly sharpened my thought. Up to that time (and I already had earned my Ph.D. from the University of Chicago by then), I’d been inculcated with the idea that the greatest shame a scientist can bring on himself or herself is to be wrong, or mistaken, or errant, especially in print. Here was one of the greatest scientists who ever lived not exactly contradicting that idea, but at least making it more nuanced, loosening it up a bit.
Perhaps five years later, this notion was reinforced. I happened to be in the seminar room of NOAA’s Boulder research labs when Doug Lilly, one of the better scientists in our field, and today a member of the National Academy of Sciences, said, with a trademark grin, in the middle of a talk on his latest work, “…I’m not going to justify this next step, but I’m going to tell you what I did.”
!!! There I sat, still thinking everything a scientist ever could say in public or write in print had to be right, had to be unassailable – totally supported by both evidence and reason. But here was an intellect I greatly respected relaxing that constraint, saying that you could comingle fact and conjecture; you just had to label each for what it was. Doug was alerting us. On the one hand, he was saying: look, if you take this step at this point in the rationale, see what it allows you do. And at the same time he was saying listen up! What follows no longer has the same status or foundation as that which has come before. Here’s an opportunity for you to do your own thinking, your own research. Here’s a new problem to fret through! It was splendid, particularly when I realized everyone in the room thought the more of him for that – not less.
Of course by that time I was no longer doing science so much as managing or leading it. (Problem solved? In the cynical view of many bench scientists, and indeed many people of every profession and walk of life, bosses seem less troubled by distinctions between facts and views, matters of honesty and integrity, and so on. The reality as I experienced it for more than three decades is rather different. One of the greatest challenges managers and leaders face is that of distinguishing in their speech between facts and views, being clear on each, speaking truth to power…)
This quote has never left me over the years. I’ve repeated it hundreds of times to colleagues and friends as an introduction to whatever I would say next. It is both confession and encouragement.
What, then, is its connection to the blog?
Quite simply this…now that we’ve all had a decade of experience with blogs, we’ve seen that they can take a range of forms, but that at their best they provide a platform for putting forth views, as well as facts. They are also collaborative. Blogs and their embodied ideas create the opportunity for others to “take salutary pleasure in proving their falseness.” They’re better suited to incubating (often speculative) ideas than to archiving established truths.
So if you’ll read this blog from time to time, you will mostly find “views, supported by some evidence.” I’ll be trying my best to steer clear of false views, but I’ll admit at the outset that the views presented here, being views, are flawed, and can not just stand a little improvement, but cry out for it, and call for refinement, and on occasion outright rejection…these are the advances and contributions that only you can make, not just in any responses you may throw in here, though those are needed, but also in your broader work and discourse. On this blog, on these topics, it is more important to be stimulating than right.
Topics? Just what is the purview of this blog? To get a better feel, you might click on “About livingontherealworld.org.” The first few posts will also focus on purview and purpose. But in a few words, we human beings – all seven billion of us – have a destiny that is intertwined with that of the Earth itself, a planet (and its associated ocean, and atmosphere, and life). The real world is at one and the same time:
– a resource,
– a victim, and
– a threat.
Given these realities, perhaps it would be to our advantage to think rather more, and rather more realistically, about this complicated and important relationship – and to be more deliberate in the way we translate thought into decision and action – as individuals, institutions, and nations.
This blog, and those of us who contribute to and read it, will explore these realities and their implications, and options for coping (which are providentially themselves very real, and accessible). Perhaps in this way we can help make a better (real) world, for ourselves and for those who follow.
A better real world? That raises some questions. We’ll turn to these beginning in the next post.
not big as defined by any absolute dollar measure, or the numbers of scientists, or the diversity of disciplines, but big in the relative sense of “big enough for the host organism (society as a whole) to notice.” There will be more about “size” in further posts. Size matters, in science, as well as other spheres of life.
Congratulations on your new blog Bill! I’m looking forward to reading (and commenting on) your posts.
One statement gave me pause: “…by any measure, science is big.”
How about relative to the size that would be optimal for society? In my view, we’re a very long way from exhausting the benefits of scientific research. The reason is that knowledge and understanding (which science provides) is a (perhaps the) key building block in societal well-being. At this time a dollar invested in science returns considerably more than a dollar worth of societal benefit. Given this, science is much smaller than what would be optimal for society.
Let’s hope that the posts and comments on this blog helps spread scientific understanding and thereby helps make science just a little bit bigger.
Thanks, Paul. Great comment! Certainly we are a long way from exhausting the benefits of scientific research. And this comment starts us down an interesting line of thought and discussion. I hope to address this more carefully in future posts, but just a couple of initial points. The benefits of science to society (the people footing the bills and faced with a range of urgent real-world problems, from the economy to the aging of the population, to health care, to protecting the environment, etc.) depends in part on (1) what science we do, and (2) whether we develop needed knowledge and understanding in time.
Consider the first. Suppose, for example, we choose to make human exploration of the solar system our priority, using present science and technology. This might be possible, but might also empty the treasury. Suppose instead we make renewable energy, nanotechnology, biology, environmental science, etc., our focus. We might look up from our labors after a few decades to find that the human race is so much better off than today that we could afford to go to Mars as a hobby. According to astronomers, Mars will still be there. This might seem fanciful, but consider choices to use the resources of Egypt to build pyramids and other monuments to the Pharaohs. Look at the mapping of the human genome. We proceeded along two parallel efforts. The first used existing technology of the day and brute force. The second focused initially on making the cost of sequencing cheaper, and only then, starting in earnest. The second approach has made it feasible to sequence the genes of many more species of plants and animals.
Now consider the second. Suppose we develop an extensive body of environmental science, but too late — only in time to document escalating degradation of the environment; not in time for society to take action? How do we value that?
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