Tuesday, July 23, 2013

"Science is not philosophers sitting in clouds"

This is good. It's from Lee Smolin's book The Trouble With Physics (2006). Smolin works in quantum gravity and is writing about superstrings (the chapter this excerpt is taken from is titled "What is Science?"), but most of it applies to all science, including climate science, and how science really works and how certain ideas prevail.
When I entered graduate school at Harvard in 1976, I was a naïve student from a small college. I was in awe of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrôdinger and how they had changed physics through the force of their radical thinking. I dreamed, as young people do, of being one of them. I now found myself at the center of particle physics, surrounded by the leaders in the field — people like Sidney Coleman, Sheldon Glashow, and Steven Weinberg. These people were incredibly smart, but they were nothing like my heroes. In lectures, I never heard them talk about the nature of space and time or issues in the foundations of quantum mechanics. Neither did I meet many students with these interests.

This led me to a personal crisis. I was certainly not as well prepared as students from the great universities, but I had done research as an undergraduate, which most of my peers had not, and I knew I was a quick study. So I was confident that I could do the work. But I also had a very particular idea of what a great theoretical physicist should be. The great theoretical physicists I was rubbing shoulders with at Harvard were rather different from that. The atmosphere was not philosophical; it was harsh and aggressive, dominated by people who were brash, cocky, confident, and in some cases insulting to people who disagreed with them.

During this time, I made friends with a young philosopher of science named Amelia Rechel-Cohn. Through her, I came to know people who, like me, were interested in the deep philosophical and foundational issues in physics. But this only made matters worse. They were nicer than the theoretical physicists, but they seemed happy just to analyze precise logical issues in the foundations of special relativity or ordinary quantum physics. I had little patience for such talk; I wanted to invent theories, not criticize them, and I was sure that — as unreflective as the originators of the standard model seemed — they knew the things I needed to know if I was to get anywhere.

Just as I started to think seriously about quitting, Amelia gave me a book by the philosopher Paul Feyerabend. It was called Against Method and it spoke to me — but what it had to say was not very encouraging. It was a blow to my naïveté and self-absorption.

What Feyerabend's book said to me was: Look, kid, stop dreaming! Science is not philosophers sitting in clouds. It is a human activity, as complex and problematic as any other. There is no single method to science and no single criterion for who is a good scientist. Good science is whatever works at a particular moment of history to advance our knowledge. And don't bother me with how to define progress — define it any way you like and this is still true.

From Feyerabend, I learned that progress sometimes requires deep philosophical thinking, but most often it does not. It is mostly furthered by opportunistic people who cut corners, exaggerating what they know and have accomplished. Galileo was one of these; many of his arguments were wrong, and his opponents — the well-educated, philosophically reflective Jesuit astronomers of the time — easily punched holes in his thinking. Nevertheless, he was right and they were wrong.

What I also learned from Feyerabend is that no a priori argument can tell us what will work in all circumstances. What works to advance science at one moment will be wrong at another. And I learned one more thing from his stories of Galileo: You have to fight for what you believe.

Feyerabend's message was a none too timely wake-up call. If I wanted to do good science, I had to recognize that the people I was lucky enough to be studying with were indeed the great scientists of the day. Like all great scientists, they had succeeded because their ideas were right and they had fought for them. If your ideas are right and you fight for them, you'll accomplish something. Don't waste time feeling sorry for yourself or waxing nostalgic about Einstein and Bohr. No one but you can develop your ideas, and no one but you will fight for them.

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