Oh Richard Feynman we love you get up
On page 8 in my edition:
We physicists are always checking to see if there is something the matter with the theory. That's the game, because if there is something the matter, it's interesting! But so far, we have found nothing wrong with the theory of quantum electrodynamics.Replace "quantum electrodynamics" in that quote with, say, "evolution" -- or any other well-supported theory -- and you're left with a pretty concise, parsimonious explanation of the goals and methods of science.
My favorite quote on the subject of general science, though, is on page 10 in my edition:
Finally, there is this possibility: after I tell you something, you just can't believe it. A little screeen comes down and you don't listen anymore. I'm going to describe to you how Nature is -- and if you don't like it, that's going to get in the way of your understanding it. It's a problem that physicists have learned to deal with: They've learned to realize that whether they like a theory or they don't like a theory is not the essential question. Rather, it is whether or not the theory gives predictions that agree with experiment. It is not a question of whether a theory is philosophically delightful, or easy to understand, or perfectly reasonable from the point of view of common sense. The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you can accept Nature as She is -- absurd.Of course, everyone reading this knows that this is the case. But Feynman was talking to people who didn't know, presumably, and I'm willing to bet that he convinced them. Do we have people doing this now? Great scientists, widely acknowledged to be great scientists, who bother to sit people down and say "here's how science works -- not just what we've discovered, but why it means something that we discovered it"? Daniel Dennett is the closest thing I can think of, and of course he's an amazing writer and thinker, but his status as a philosopher (rather than a scientist) is potentially an Achilles heel. People are more than willing to speak of him dismissively. Even the New York Times Magazine didn't give him a fucking break.
I think perhaps the problem is that great scientists are no longer widely (i.e. near-universally) acknowledged as great scientists. Certainly it's a rare scientist who has the force of personality that Feynman had, but I can't think offhand of any current scientists who enjoy "public intellectual" status. There was an article in a recent New Scientist, which I also read in the tent this weekend, complaining about "the fall of reason in the West":
The other challenge was external: a much more critical view of science adopted by the rest of society. Science revealed a darker side. Suspicions arose that it was dehumanising and the tool of dictators. Then came the atom bomb. Since the 1960s, evidence has begun to pile up that science's triumphs are poisoning the planet.This article gave me pause, although I didn't fully agree with all of it. Primarily, I'm not sure I accept the active voice when the authors say that "science...has disposed of much of what made it successful." I tend to think that the fault lies not with the scientists, who after all are just doing what they've always done, and more with the state of public education -- most people are being fed misinformation about science and its role, and the public education system is ill-equipped to adequately counter this misinformation, nor to stanch it at its source. But I wonder whether our side just needs a charismatic, plain-talking genius in the Feynman mold.
The result is a widespread western, and especially American, descent into superstition. About 40 per cent of Americans believe that Genesis accurately describes the creation. There is an apparent belief in magic that has had no parallel since the Middle Ages. The growing anti-intellectualism has no western precedent at all. We are witnessing the elevation of emotion over reason, of personal conviction over hard thinking.
But pause. Reflect on the inspirations for modern science: belief in God and belief in humanity, a rational world view, and optimism about humanity's place in the cosmos. Science, it seems, has disposed of much of what made it successful. It has eaten away at its thought-foundations: its contribution to human meaning, the human spirit and the non-material richness of civilisation has shrivelled.
(P.S., yes, it's a Frank O'Hara reference. My MA in English is basically useless on the job front, so I might as well get some fun out of it.)