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The scientific ideal

I have sometimes found myself on the minority side of fundamental scientific controversies. But I have never come across anything like a Kuhnian situation. Of course, as I have said, the majority of the scientific community is not always quite as open to criticism as it ideally should be. Nevertheless, the extent to which it adheres to ‘proper scientific prac­tice’ in the conduct of scientific research is nothing short of remarkable. You need only attend a research seminar in any fundamental field in the ‘hard’ sciences to see how strongly people’s behaviour as researchers differs from human behaviour in general. …

A senior politician might say in response to criticism from an obscure but ambitious party worker, ‘Whose side are you on, anyway?’ Even our professor, away from the research context (while delivering an undergraduate lecture, say) might well reply dismissively, ‘You’d better learn to walk before you can run. Read the textbook, and meanwhile don’t waste your time and ours.’ But in the research seminar any such response to criticism would cause a wave of embar­rassment to pass through the seminar room. People would avert their eyes and pretend to be diligently studying their notes. There would be smirks and sidelong glances. Everyone would be shocked by the sheer impropriety of such an attitude. In this situation, appeals to authority (at least, overt ones) are simply not acceptable, even when the most senior person in the entire field is addressing the most junior.

So the professor takes the student’s point seriously, and responds with a concise but adequate argument in defence of the disputed equation. The professor tries hard to show no sign of being irritated by criticism from so lowly a source. Most of the questions from the floor will have the form of criticisms which, if valid, would diminish or destroy the value of the professor’s life’s work. But bringing vigorous and diverse criticism to bear on accepted truths is one of the very pur­poses of the seminar. Everyone takes it for granted that the truth is not obvious, and that the obvious need not be true; that ideas are to be accepted or rejected according to their content and not their origin; that the greatest minds can easily make mistakes; and that the most trivial-seeming objection may be the key to a great new discovery. [325-6]

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