Scientific Methods and Values
Part 1: The Growth of Science
"Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man. The power that crosses the white sea, making a path under surges that threaten to engulf him."
That's how Sophocles, a poet who lived in ancient Greece some 2500 years ago, described the human adventure.
Sophocles could have been giving a definition of science, as accurate then as it is now.
The two key ideas of science are here-wonder and power. Let's see how these two key ideas have grown and changed from their birth in ancient Greece to their flowering all over the world today.
The power side of science is the same power that learned how to cross the white sea; how to grow crops instead of gather them; how to herd animals instead of hunt them; how to make wheels, mold pots, extract metals and read and write languages. This power side of science came into the world long before the ancient Greeks.
It was created on this planet by people all races, all over the ancient world. It was most powerfully developed in the rich river valleys of China, India, Africa and South America. It was created and nurtured by unknown geniuses who passed on their powerful knowledge to their children and their children's children.
Today we call this power technology. Today every mechanic, engineer, inventor, craftsperson and scientist stands on the shoulders of these early human pioneers.
There is another side to modern science. The wonder side. The same wonder you hear in the small child's questions. "Why is the sky blue?" "What are stars made of?" "How did the world begin?" "Where did I come from?"
People from very ancient times also asked these questions. Some of the first people who both asked them, and then dared to answer them in a scientific way lived in ancient Ionian Greece some 2500 years ago.
The man generally considered to be the world's first natural philosopher/scientist was a Greek named Thales. The question that most fascinated Thales was "What is the world made of?"
His answer, water. The world, as he pictured it, was like a large island that floated in a cosmic sea of water. The water forms itself into soil and into plants and animals, and then all these dissolve themselves back into the cosmic ocean in eternal comings and goings.
Today what used to be the Ionian Greek city of Miletus, where Thales lived, is just a ruin of stones in western Turkey, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. But 2500 years ago, Miletus was the center of an exciting new idea in the world, the idea we today call science.
Thales, and the other natural philosophers of Greece, not only asked big questions like "what is the world made of?" but they answered these questions in natural terms. That is, they left out the gods. The world, said Democritus, has no beginning, nor will it have an end. The world is made of atoms in the void.
Human beings, like other living creatures, evolved on this earth from simpler creatures in the water, said Anaximander.
Diseases have natural causes, and therefore must have natural cures, claimed Hippocrates.
Most of the answers given by the Ionian Greeks were pure speculation. They did few, if any, experiments. They had the wonder, in other words, but not yet the power. But this new confidence in natural reason laid important stones in the foundation of the sciences to come. A foundation upon which later humans like Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Curie, Einstein and Bohr would build the edifice of modern science.
After the Ionians, later Greek, Egyptian and Roman thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Ptolemy and Galen added to, and multiplied, the range and power of rational thought. But for the next giant step forward, the human race had to wait almost two thousand years. This step came during what is known as the Renaissance.
Western civilization itself went into decline after the fall of the Roman Empire. For many hundreds of years it was the Arab and Moslem world that preserved and added to the beginnings made in Greece.
When we think of the Middle Ages today, we think of lords and ladies, of castles and cathedrals, of knights and monks. Scholars in the history of science point out that the Middle Ages was also of a time of much progress in science.
It was during the Middle Ages, for instance, that humans learned new ways to harness the power of nature for human purposes. New technologies were invented that used the power of the wind and water to grind corn, pump water and saw wood. Harnesses for horses were invented that more effectively used animal power. Then came new ways to improve agriculture, navigation and then in a rush, the printing press, compass and telescope as the Middle Ages merged into the Renaissance.
During the Medieval days, too, the wonder side of science was slowly gaining vision. The ancient books of Greek scientists like Aristotle, Archimedes and Ptolemy were rediscovered, translated and added to. A new interest was slowly growing in reason, in the ability of human beings to decipher the mysteries of nature, as well as the mysteries of God.
Here in the great cathedral in Pisa, Italy, a young university professor used to sit and watch an altar lamp swing slowly back and forth. Back and forth. Curious, he timed its swing with the only watch available then, his own pulse. He found it always seemed to take the same amount of time for one swing- no matter how wide or narrow the swing. He had discovered the principle of the pendulum clock. More important, Galileo Galilei had taken a first step toward uniting power and wonder, launching modern science on its incredible voyage of discovery.
In the course of a long and adventure-filled life, Galileo helped to lay the scientific and mathematical foundations for a new way of looking at motion. A way that not only explained how things fall to the ground, but also how the moon revolves around the earth and how the earth and all the other planets move in orbits around the sun.
Galileo didn't do this alone, of course. Other giants of his day, men like Copernicus, Kepler and Tycho Brahe played important parts in creating modern science. Probably the most important single man of all was born the same year Galileo died. He was born and lived in England. His name was Isaac Newton.
A famous English poet of the day, Alexander Pope, expressed the general opinion of the time about Newton's achievements.
"Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light."
During these heady days, for the first time in human history, the heavy thinkers and the heavy doers were edging closer together. It was no longer good enough to just ask big questions and give purely speculative answers. The answers had to have practical consequences, consequences you could see, feel, touch, taste and measure.
When you did thus test your theories in practice, you often were surprised. Thinking about the surprise, you could go back and change your answers, making them more truly fitting with reality. The idea we call experimental science was beginning to take shape.
In the next few centuries, progress in understanding and in controlling natural events with the aid of experimental science began to gain momentum. Sometimes the wonder side of science led the way, especially in astronomy and natural history. And sometimes the power or technology side of science led the way, as in the fast pace of invention in the nineteenth century.
The nineteenth century in Europe and North America was the century of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution combined the power of science and technology with the equally powerful ideas of democracy, capitalism and free trade. Out of this creative mix came inventions like the steam engine, electrical generators and motors, wireless communication, internal combustion engines, as well as a host of new scientific tools.
Though it came later, progress was also made in the life sciences and in medicine. Instead of basing cures to human ills on folk medicine, astrology or other fanciful theories, humans slowly began to rely more on the scientific discoveries of biologists, chemists and physicians. Why? Because they worked better.
In the late nineteenth century and then most dramatically in our own twentieth century, most of the terrible epidemic diseases were conquered. Some have called this the "noblest chapter in human history." And with good reason. Diphtheria, typhoid, smallpox, cholera, syphilis, tuberculosis, polio and plague all gave way before the onslaught of power and wonder people. And that conquest continues today in countries around the world.
In our time, the influence of scientific method and of scientific values has spread into the social and political worlds as well. As yet, it has not proved as useful there as in the physical and life sciences, but few would doubt the potential for the future.
In such a fast survey of the growth of scientific methods and values, there is a danger we think of famous scientists as being godlike. Or imagine they all use a magical tool called scientific method, and through its use, perform miracles. Some people think of scientists as men and women in white coats, hunched over their test tubes and machines, working all hours of the night, risking their own and other people's lives in an almost demonic desire to know.
When you read of the lives of individual scientists, you quickly see it wasn't that way. You see, instead, how scientists in their personal lives have been just about as varied a group an any other that has lived on this planet.
John Dalton, for instance, was a retiring modest bachelor. Poor, colorblind, he taught in a small Quaker elementary school in England. He never married. "I just never had time," he claimed. He was rather clumsy in the science laboratory. Yet despite these traits, or perhaps because of them, he managed to invent a theory of atoms that brought a revolution to the new world of science.
Galileo, on the other hand, was as aggressive and social as Dalton was retiring and solitary. Galileo never married either, but he lived with a mistress for many years. He loved wine. He loved a good argument. In fact, he was continually getting into hot water with the authorities not only because of his unorthodox opinions, but also because he was so abrasive in putting them forward. And yet despite these traits, or perhaps because of them, he managed to overturn centuries of error and to father modern physics and astronomy (as well as five children with his unwed mistress). And throughout it all, to remain a devout Catholic.
If we had world enough and time, it would be easy to multiply these two examples a hundredfold. A thousandfold.
There were grumpy geniuses like Charles Babbage, who designed the world's first true computer. And charming young geniuses like Ada Lovelace, who helped him design it and went on to herself become the world's first computer programmer. As well as to lose most of her money trying to use the computer to pick the winners of horse races!
There have been wealthy, irascible woman haters like Henry Cavendish who discovered hydrogen, the composition of water and weighed the earth.
There have been devoted family men like Charles Darwin who shocked and changed the world with a theory of evolution by natural selection.
There have been poor young women like Marie Curie, who discovered radium, pioneered the way for women in science, and was the first person ever to win two Nobel prizes. In between all these scientific achievements, she also managed to have a happy marriage and two daughters who became famous in their own right as writers and scientists.
There have been, and are, devoutly religious scientists. There have been, and are, devout agnostic and atheist scientists. Family men and women, gay men and women, black men and women, young and old men and women.
Handicapped and not, social and not, athletic and not, clever in the laboratory, and clumsy with their hands.
In other words, there is no typical scientist, just as there is no typical business person, teacher, artist or truck driver.
But there is such a thing as science. And there are such things as scientific methods and scientific values. Methods and values that all the major and minor figures in science, yesterday and today, have followed and lived by.
Part 2: The Methods and Values of Science
"The mysterious," said Albert Einstein, "is the source of all true art and science."
"Science," said Thomas Edison, "is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
"A mouse," said Walt Whitman, is miracle enough to stagger sextillion of infidels."
Each of these three ingredients-the mystery, the work and the surprise-is indeed a part of modern science. And there are others.
When people write or talk about scientific method, they often write or talk as if it were a single thing. Most scientists would disagree.
The truth is, most scientists don't particularly like to talk about their methods at all. They much prefer to tell you about their problems and their results. And usually with heavy use of phrases like "it seems," "the probability is," "within the limits of our experiments."
In other words, besides mystery, work and surprise, scientists also prize caution, limits, not going beyond the evidence, taking care that whatever statement is made, it should be verifiable in practice. Wonder, speculation mystery are fine, so long as they have a firm connection to power, hard data, fact.
A Nobel laureate, Sir Peter Medawar, put it this way. "Most of the day-to-day business of science consists in trying to find out if your imagined world is anything like the real one. If it is not, we have to think again."
So there you have it-the two sides- the two tricks to both scientific methods and scientific values. Imagination and reality. Mystery and fact. Wonder and power.
On the one side, scientific methods and scientific values are on the side of wild fantasy. On the side of the most outrageous, passionate, imaginative search you can imagine. A search for a new world of truth and light. A way of penetrating the mysteries of the cosmos. The mysteries of the human mind and body. The mysteries of an ant hill, a new gear system or a new molecule.
On the other side scientific methods and values are on the side of sober caution. On the side of sticking to the facts. Of care, nitpicking attention to detail, scrupulous concern for absolute honesty.
Once you get the imagined world and the real world into a working relationship, you have science. You have knowledge. Knowledge that works. Knowledge that can send off some of the brightest sparks of joy and delight humans seem capable of seeing.
Many humans who are not professional scientists experienced some of that joy that works when they saw the first blue-white photos of our spaceship earth.
Think how much imagination and care went into getting those first photographs from space and you will have a better idea of what scientific methods and values are all about. Not only the imagination and care of the engineers, scientists, mechanics and astronauts today, but all the engineers, scientists, mechanics and pioneers whose work came before. The people who first invented cameras, who perfected film. The people who first built and flew airplanes, designed and tested the first rockets. The people who learned to make better steel, plastics, aluminum and ceramics. The people who dreamed up computers and computer programs. The pioneers who had the courage and skill and perseverance to never give up, to-try again after a failure, to take still another chance-and to succeed.
Each scientific worker has been able, in other words, to build on the work of those who have gone before. Preparing the way. As one of the greatest scientists, Isaac Newton, put it, "If I have seen further than other men, it is because I have been able to stand on the shoulders of giants."
Each scientific worker has been subject to a harsh standard. Does it work? Does it predict correctly? Does your fantasy world fit with your reality world? And not for you alone, or for you and a few like-minded friends- does it work for the public, for everyone in all times and all places? Only so can it be called science. Only so can it be called true.
Not every enterprise that has claimed the title of science can pass these stern tests. Astrology, for instance, is also an attempt to connect a fantasy world with a reality world. There have even been some famous scientists, like Johannes Kepler, who have been astrologers as well.
Over the long pull, however, astrology fails the most crucial of all scientific tests. It doesn't work. Publicly. At all times and all places. Mind you, astrology does work sometimes. The imagined world of a personal horoscope sometimes may even may predict with astonishing accuracy a person's traits or a person's future actions. But when faced with a critical, public test, astrology always flunks. And astrology has flunked over and over again for centuries. One result of this failure is that knowledge of astrology today gives no more power to individuals or to society than knowledge of astrology did a thousand years ago.
On the other hand, knowledge of astronomy, or physics, or chemistry, or biology, or ecology or geology- gives power a thousandfold as great today as it did a thousand years ago. Or even ten years ago!
The same contrasts stand out when you compare genuine science with other occult practices of the past and present. Psychic surgery, astral projection, spoonbending, miracle cures, Bermuda triangles, etc. All these can point to remarkable instances where the world of fantasy did indeed seem to connect with our world of reality. But none of these occult practices can pass the harsh scientific test of public verification over the long stretch. And as a result, none of them has led to any real increase in human power or wisdom. In other words, not one of them works-not publicly, consistently, reliably.
Instead of being able to see farther by standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before, with the occult, at best, you can feel better by holding hands with those who believe as you do. And as the horizon fades, the sight dims.
Let's be more specific now. Granted that science tries to connect an imagined world with the real world-what hints do we get from successful connections of the past as to just how it can be done most fruitfully today.
There is no recipe.
Many textbooks claim that scientific method means starting with a problem. You construct a hypothesis to solve the problem. Then you test to see if your hypothesis is true.
Most of the time, the hypothesis turns out to be false. But then, that in itself is knowledge. Verifiable, scientific knowledge. As Thomas Edison once said, "I may not know how to make a light bulb yet, but I do know 10,000 ways that won't work."
This way of looking at scientific method is true enough, as far as it goes. But it doesn't go nearly far enough. In the real world scientific laboratory, in the real world scientific study, in the real world, it gets more complicated. And more interesting.
For one thing, no seed can grow unless you prepare the soil. In order to find out something new you need to know many things old. You are not likely to discover a cure for cancer if you don't know anything about cells, about genetics, about biochemistry, perhaps even about poetry and anthropology. There is no formula, but experience has shown that the more intensely you become preoccupied .with a problem, the more sides you see to the problem, the greater your chances of solving it. With the emphasis on intensity.
Often what it takes is a near total immersion in the problem, the challenge, the quest. Which is why scientists often are looked on as absentminded. It is not that their mind is "absent" but rather that it is so intensely concentrated on the challenge that they don't pay attention to anything else at the time.
Of course experience has also shown -note the scientific caution again- that it is possible to know too much about a subject. To know so much that your mind is not as free to imagine new connections. Connections that may show some of what you know is not true, or is only a dangerous and misleading half-truth. This is one reason some of the best scientific work is often done by quite young men and women. They don't know so much that isn't true.
Again, there is no magical recipe. Study in, around and about a subject. Study intensely, deeply, widely-but don't believe everything you read! Besides the study of past knowledge in the field, the scientist would usually want to get his or her hands involved. Or at least to think ideas that someone else could in fact test out with fingers and eyes and noses and ears-and if possible, measurements in numbers.
Sometimes, more often than not, it works the other way around, too. The scientist, or technician, or engineer, or craftsperson comes across a new idea in the process of constructing something. Or experimenting with something. Or just plain fooling around with something.
One recent historian of science pointed out that the unsung heroes of the famous Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University were the technicians who used sealing wax and string to patch together the custom-made research equipment. And in the process helped piece together the pieces of modern atomic theory. All, incidentally, with a yearly budget for research equipment of less than a thousand dollars a year in 1908.
Since there is this intimate connection between wonder and power that runs through all the best of science, it is not surprising that there is such an intimate connection between technology and theory. Between the workshop, the laboratory and the study. Different scientists are more at home in one than another, but all are aware of how important each of the places and pieces is.
We have talked of scientific methods. What about scientific values? There is a close connection between methods and values in science. Sometimes it is hard to tell which is which. You can look at scientific values much as you look at scientific methods.
On the one hand, caution, limits and care. On the other hand, imagination, wonder and passion. The methods of science are there, and so are the values. Both in the passion of the search and in the purity of the limitations. Wonder and power, hope and caution, mystery and fact, paradoxes that work.
On the side of limitation, you might think of scientific values in terms of the famous Murphy's Laws. "If anything can go wrong, it will." In other words science is not satisfied with easy answers that work once but are not reliable over the long pull. Once you really know something, it will work time and time again.
Just because it is in the newspapers doesn't mean it is so. In other words, science is perpetually the skeptic. Show me. Prove it to me. Prove it to me not in words, but in deeds. In experiments.
Honesty is the best policy-but cash on the line is even better. In other words, results count. And the worst sin a scientist can commit is to falsify his or her results. To lie. Science does have an advantage here. The cheater, the liar, and there have been some in science, is almost certain to be found out. Because part of the very core of scientific truth is that it can and must be verified publicly, independently. It is, thus, self-correcting.
"The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not quite sure it is right." This is a "law" made by a famous judge, Learned Hand. He could have been talking about science as well as of democracy. And, as a matter of fact, science at its core is a profoundly democratic enterprise. The passion of a free people, who have faith, but a faith that can stand challenge. A faith that can change as new knowledge comes along.
On the passion side of science, we might coin some new laws. Let's call them Riley's Laws (Murphy's optimistic cousin).
"The mysterious is the source of all true art and science." Albert Einstein said that. He also said "imagination is more important than knowledge."
"It is not the immensity of space that should command our wonder, but rather the man who measured it."
"Dare to be naive." Advice given by a modern scientist and engineer, Buckminster Fuller.
"There is a vitality, an energy, a quickening, which is translated through you into action. And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it." Said by a dancer, Martha Graham, but she could have been talking about one of the most precious values of science as well. The conviction that in the long run, human beings play a part, human beings have a voice and a vote in the universe.
Which brings us back to the beginning. To that fabled time in ancient Greece, 2500 years ago, when Sophocles put it into words:
"Wonders are many,