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Toastmasters Speech


Myths and the Scientist

A speech to Ginninderra Toastmasters, 10 January 2000

My title brings together two ideas that we wouldn’t normally think of as connected. A scientist, we might suppose, deals with observations and facts, with what can be seen or measured. He or she has little to do with systems of belief, with emotions or imagination. Myths, on the other hand, are stories that may have little to do with facts and observations—they’re meant to be evocative of emotion.

The picture of the scientist I just described is, I believe, a common one. But I’ve come to believe that it’s false—that it’s a myth itself. And, what’s more, a dangerous one. In this talk I’m going to try to say why.

Why am I interested in this topic? Some of you know that I have a background in mathematics myself. I have a PhD in mathematics and have published papers and lectured to Honours students. So I come from a background that’s at least associated with science. And originally I’d have described myself as a hard-nosed scientist, with no time for mysticism. But since then I’ve become interested in meditation and mixed with many people who were committed to subjects such as astrology. So I’ve been forced to confront these apparently conflicting world-views and ask myself ‘what is science?’ and ‘what is mathematics?’. That’s how I became interested in what I’m now talking about.

I’ve set myself a big task in talking about this and will have to treat it quite superficially in this short span of time. First, let’s look at what scientists do—or what people believe they do.

As I said before, science starts—so the story goes—with facts and observations. It then aims to devise theories to explain these facts and observations and enable us to predict and control how Nature works. And what supposedly distinguishes science from other kinds of explanations of the world (like, say, astrology) is the use of experimentation to test our theories against Nature. When a scientist has created a theory, she is supposed to find an experiment that will test the theory—a prediction that says if I do this then this will happen. And if the experiment is carried out but doesn’t give the result predicted by the theory, then the scientist has no choice but to abandon the theory.

Now, in order for us to have a concrete example to work with, let’s look at one of the most famous scientific theories of all, Newton’s theory of mechanics and gravitation. Isaac Newton was born in 1642, in England, and seems to have been a strange character. His main interest was alchemy and he also wrote prolifically on the Book of Revelations. But he also devised one of the most successful scientific theories of all time, one which explained the motions of the planets and showed that they obey the same laws as motions of projectiles on the Earth.

Before it was superseded by the ideas of Einstein, Newton’s theory came to be regarded as a paradigm of certain knowledge. And it isn’t hard to see why. The astronomer Edmund Halley was able, for instance, to measure a small segment of the path of a comet and calculate, using Newton’s theories, exactly where in the sky it would reappear, some thirty years hence. What an incredible feat!

But when Newton devised his theory, it was ridiculed and called ‘occult’ by critics like Leibniz. It relied on ideas such as ‘action at a distance’, in which two bodies exert an attraction without any means to do so, which were regarded as ridiculous. It seems that some of the ideas were suggested by ideas from alchemy.

Yet the theory survived the criticisms and, as I‘ve said, became one of the most successful theories ever.

Now let’s return to my description of scientific method. I said that one of the key features of scientific research was reliance on experimentation. Supposedly, a theory will survive only as long as it continues to make successful and interesting predictions, testable by experiments. Now certainly Newton’s theory made many successful predictions, like the one of Halley’s that I mentioned. And you might think that the theory continued successfully until someone made an unsuccessful prediction. And then suddenly, overnight, the theory had to be replaced. Is that what happened?

Well, no. Remember, we aren’t talking about balancing successful predictions against unsuccessful ones and saying that a theory’s successful when the successful outnumber the unsuccessful by a large enough margin. That would leave room for individual judgment about what a big enough margin might be. It’d be like trying to convince people that your Government’s done wonders for the economy. Science is supposed to be much more rigorous than that. Even one unsuccessful prediction is supposed to be enough to overthrow a theory. And then the theory’s successor has as one of its main aims to explain that unsuccessful prediction.

Is there, then, one unsuccessful prediction that marks the death of Newton’s theory and the ascendancy of Einstein’s? No, we can’t say that. There is one famous observational result that favours Einstein over Newton. It has to do with the orbit of the planet Mercury. Yet the unsuccessful prediction came eighty-five years before Einstein’s theory. Until then it was treated simply as an anomaly.

So the most we can say is that our description of scientific theory is of an ideal. But even that isn’t accurate. Philosophers of science have shown that there are many occasions when scientific advances never would have been made if scientists had been bound by the methodological rules that people have tried to assume for science.

Even Einstein’s theory created an unsuccessful prediction of this kind. It was eventually explained away, but survived for many years as another ‘anomaly’.

There’s another aspect of our description of scientific method that is worth a bit more attention. That is the aspect that’s concerned with the creation of theories. If you believe that the scientist proceeds by pure logic and study of the results of other scientists, you have to explain how it is that scientists create their theories. As I’ve said, Newton's theory was suggested by ideas from alchemy, a now almost completely discredited science. Einstein created his theories from trying to imagine what it would be like to ride on a ray of light.

These are not the work of men driven by logic and devoid of emotion. I don’t have time here to go into this aspect of the scientific method, but want merely to point out their relevance to my claim that myths and scientists do not belong to such separate worlds as is often believed.

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© 2000 Howard Silcock