BOOK REVIEW / Stars and billiard balls: The Unnatural Nature of Science - Lewis Wolpert: Faber and Faber, pounds 14.99
Monday 28 December 1992
It is not common sense to believe that the earth is a sphere, or that it orbits the sun, or that planets and billiard balls all obey the same laws of motion, or that things continue moving in straight lines unless acted upon by an external force.
From the startling paradox of this initial thesis, Professor Wolpert develops a new perspective on science, starting with a delineation of the boundaries between science and technology. He warms to his theme, continuing with a discourse on the nature of scientific creativity, before ending on the question of the moral responsibility of scientists. By pointing out the essentially mysterious nature of scientific truths, he seeks to demystify the relationship between scientists and the public.
Technology, which is concerned with how to make things do what you want them to, is the poor man's commonsensical sort of knowledge, quite different from science, which seeks to know why things perform as they do. Whereas the ancient Egyptians and Chinese had advanced technologies, they had no real concept of science, which was invented by the Greeks. And according to Professor Wolpert, if the Greeks had not thought of it, it is quite conceivable that the human race would never have had science at all.
Despite these provocative ideas, Wolpert's approach to the history of science is fairly orthodox. Indeed, the origins of his theory owe much to Karl Popper's ideas of falsifiability - scientific hypotheses must, if they are to be taken seriously, be expressed in terms that would allow experimental falsification. As common attitudes towards astrology and religion show, it is far more natural behaviour to collect evidence that verifies hypotheses rather than seeking ways to refute them.
Wolpert also follows Thomas Kuhn, who separated 'advancers' from 'revolutionaries' in the progress of science. The former add knowledge incrementally to an existing paradigm; the latter change the paradigm itself. The idea that most scientific advance is due to the plodding advancers is the Ortega hypothesis, after Jose Ortega y Gasset, who said: 'Experimental science has progressed - thanks in great part to the work of men astoundingly mediocre, and even less than mediocre.'
Wolpert, however, goes farther than Ortega in painting a picture of the creative scientist as a stubborn creature who clings tenaciously to his ideas, right or wrong, and who wilfully rejects data that do not fit the desired thesis. 'This is a judgement which all scientists make and which is a crucial feature in distinguishing the good, even great, scientist from the less so. It is that remarkable ability not only to have the right ideas but to judge which information to accept or reject.'
The history of science, however, is full of fakes, frauds and failures who have proceeded in precisely that manner.
'The capacity for self-delusion, even among scientists, should never be underestimated,' writes Professor Wolpert. But in his pursuit of unnatural science, he may be ignoring his own warning. There are many sound reasons for labelling psychoanalysis as unscientific, but it is unconvincing to criticise its theories on the grounds that they are 'easily incorporated into our everyday thinking'. Most scientific laws may indeed be counter-intuitive, but we need stronger evidence before granting that statement the status of a scientific meta-law.
Our brains indulge in two types of thought. What we are really good at is the pattern-recognition skills that underlie the almost instant processing of pictures and sounds. These are the skills we need in dealing with the real world, the skills of common sense and intuition. Far more prized, however, are the slow, plodding thoughts of deductive logic, which is the basis of scientific law. If we knew more about how the brain really works, we might better understand why science and common sense are incompatible.
Easily readable and generally well argued, this is one of the best accounts by a scientist of what science is really about. Whether right or wrong, Professor Wolpert's theory has one thing in its favour: it is undeniably consistent. Indeed, the whole idea that science is counter-intuitive runs so contrary to common sense that it could just be true.
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