Science is Subversive   Leave a comment

It’s true- scientific research, by definition, is a highly subversive activity.

This may not appear so- after all, pointy-headed scientists are often portrayed as a tool of the establishment (except for the mad ones), but in order for any new fact to be accepted, it must first displace and discredit previous work. History is instructive- Copernicus, Galileo, William of Ockham, and more were all considered heretics and faced serious consequences (Copernicus directed that his work be published after his death, possibly to prevent excommunication or worse). More recently, the early days of quantum mechanics and relativity were highly contentious, pitting Eistein against Bohr and Heisenberg. Charles Darwin and Peter Mitchell had to self-publish.

I don’t claim to be a member of that crowd- I simply enjoy being a part of that tradition. Every time I perform an experiment, I potentially prove someone wrong- a hypothesis created by someone who may have invested their good name and career coming up with and ‘proving’ a wrong idea. Science advances by overthrowing the established order and rejecting the ideas of the past by experimentally demonstrating that someone’s idea is *wrong*.

This is why I greatly value my mentors- people who taught me the ideas of my predecessors are not ‘received wisdom’, but fallible and almost certainly wrong. Finding the error is usually very difficult, but finding and correcting errors is what makes Science the only objective route to truth.

Scientists can be brutal to each other- most of us have no social skills- and this can confuse civilians. Being a professional scientist means I cannot invest myself in the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of an idea; and more, that I cannot trust my own data. What I *must* do is insist that conclusions are arrived at logically, and that experiments are repeatable. I recognize my own ideas and experiments are likely destined for the trash heap. At least I’ll have good company: Schwinger, Pauling, and Einstein all had loony ideas at the end.

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Posted August 31, 2010 by resnicklab in Pedagogy, Science

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