Wednesday, 12 July 2017

“Science is always wrong”

All the while I was doing it I would get quizzical, sometimes incredulous looks and comments from a sizable fraction of my academic colleagues. Why, they would ask, do I fight to stay closely involved when, in my position – whatever that was I never did fully understand, I could take my pick? ‘They needed my experience elsewhere’ where I would, apparently, ‘get a better shot at picking up research students’ … and so on and so forth. It wasn’t that dissimilar to the internationally well-known and highly respected senior colleague at a previous place of work informing me that I must be mad to leave a fast-track* career there for a junior academic post at an obscure provincial university. Their snippets of advice weren’t a million miles away from so many others I had heard before and have politely listened to since, all of which I am prepared to believe were well-meaning, and many of which may even have been right. However, sometimes no amount of dissuasion will ever be enough.

I helped to design our Foundation Year in Physics (which currently looks like this). It was a time of weak student recruitment and there’s no doubt that this motivated my head of department’s decision to task me and a couple of colleagues with the job. School-leavers with the ‘wrong’ qualifications to enter a Physics degree by conventional routes might change direction or make up for past under-performance by taking what was, in essence, a pre-degree programme of study. Result: more students going into Year 1 of our mainstream undergraduate course. Despite an initially reluctant involvement, I soon came to recognise that this had the potential to offer a ‘second chance’ to people who might need it. Goodness knows I’ve benefited from many of those in my time. Through more than two decades between its formation and my retirement, typically teaching over a quarter of the course to cohorts of up to 70 in number, I never found a group of students more worthy of my investment than were these ‘Year 0’ students. It is no surprise then that most of the innovations I experimented with were introduced in the hope of benefiting them – and thereafter the other groups I taught; I wrote about some of this in a couple of earlier post, here and here. What does this have to do with the title (which, by the way, is extracted from a longer quotation by George Bernard Shaw, see here)?
Read on …

One of the challenges was to persuade students who might regard themselves as ‘failures’ in one sense or another that they had something to contribute. An excellent route turned out to be the use of film/TV/computer game clips and other mass-media as a way into discussing their respective physics content, but another was for me to light a fuse by making an ostensibly outrageous comment – like the one in my title – and watching them defend their chosen subject. Eventually, we’d meander to the point at which most would recognise the kernel of truth in the proposition: history tells us that science is indeed always ‘wrong’. Let’s take one obvious example: the intellectual giant Isaac Newton gave us many elegant descriptions of the physical universe around us and no school textbook on physics is complete without the equations derived from his work. His research on light and colour, for instance, out-lasted the other descriptions available and still holds sway (see my post here to learn more). His description of the effects of gravity, although supreme for more than three centuries and still quite effective in most everyday circumstances, eventually gave way to Einstein’s work on the General Theory of Relativity. In other words, put crudely, Newton and the science associated with him was proved wrong in this regard. ‘Science’ was wrong and needed to be revised. The scientific knowledge we have today will be in need of revision tomorrow. It’s a humbling thought for us scientists – and we fail to take it on board at our peril. There is however a postscript to this line of reasoning. Whilst the results of scientific endeavour are always subject to change over time, it remains the case that that they give us the best insight into the workings of the physical world that we have at a given stage of history. We would have been fools to ignore Newton’s work, and thereby miss all the opportunities for advancement it afford us, on the off-chance that an Einstein was around the corner. We need also to keep in mind that science is more than its results: it’s a methodology, a way of asking questions and testing the limits to our understanding of the material world that is less susceptible to the vagaries of the human mind than some other means of inquiry.

My own early-stage career, as a graduate PhD student in the 1970s, put me in the position of demonstrating that one set of theories was inadequate and that an alternate was required. It was a scary thing to do at the time. Analogous thresholds have been crossed by the excellent former members of my research team from the mid-‘80s onward. However, there is only one true test of the commitment of an individual scientist to the principle of humility outlined above: what happens when one of their own pet theories or shiny experimental results are shown to be in need of revision … or replacement.

Now we reach the impetus behind my drafting of this post. A few days ago I received an email from a member of a German-Canadian research team describing in some detail why their recent data might require that a piece of work I was involved with over two decades ago probably needs to be re-interpreted. The email to me was a kindness – they could simply have written to the editor of the appropriate scientific journal and immediately lodged their comment in print; they wanted instead to see whether, on behalf of my co-authors of the time, I might like to say something first. I wrote back immediately. I shared with them the impracticality of pulling together the people and raw data of more than 20 years ago to undertake a re-analysis in light of this new information. I’m also pleased that I can say that I was able to commend and thank them for their work; I reassured them I saw this as science gaining benefit from their careful review.


* His words, not mine: I was never ‘fast-tracked’ through anything as far as I am aware, nor would I wish to be.

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