Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Science and Honesty

Recently, Sunil over at Balancing life had this nice post where he was listing the qualities that distinguished a mediocre scientist from a truly good one. And to that post I added the following comment.
“I would like to add one more to your excellent list. Honesty. What I mean by that is to be able to see things as they are, not as we want them to be. Some of the really great ideas have come out because the scientist in question was really looking and was not trying to fit what he/she saw to the existing world view, but rather was willing to see that it was the world view that needed to be modified. It takes exceptional intellectual honesty to do this, especially in physics.”

But I don’t think I made myself very clear on what I actually meant. So, I thought I will take a moment to clarify in the unlikely event that a random reader of that post stumbled over here.

Let me start with normal communication among people first to lead up to what I actually want to say. Suppose you tell me something. I don’t actually hear what you are telling me. I hear the projection of what you are telling me on the space of my own life’s experience. Do you see what I mean? Suppose you were telling me something simple, for example about some object, a pencil or whatever. Then, I will understand what you are saying completely. But if you were telling me about something complicated, something associated with the sixth sense, like an emotion you felt, then how much of what you say I understand will be determined by how similar my life’s experiences are to yours. Pause for a moment and think about it. You will see that this is true.

Now, what has all this go to do with science? A reductionist definition of fundamental science would be expressing observed phenomena in the language of mathematics. In this sense, nature is talking to the scientist and the scientist tries to understand what nature is telling him/her. And the scientist truly hears only when he/she eliminates the process of projection as described earlier in the context of normal language as applicable here to the language of mathematics. This is the quality I call intellectual honesty. It is the ability to see the box in the clich├ęd phrase of “thinking outside the box”. The example that comes to mind for me is the Maxwell Equations for the theory of electricity and magnetism. Once the wave equation was written down and found not to obey Galilean Invariance, the box forced people to come up with the Ether idea and spend time and energy looking for it. It was the people who saw the box that recognized that nature was telling us that she did not have Galilean Invariance, she had Lorentz Invariance. Sorry for the esoteric example to the non-physics folks and ask me to clarify if what I am saying rings a bell but does not quite hang together.


Sunil said...

I don't know if the phrase I'd use will be "intellectual honesty".....but yeah, that fits. A willingness to stick one's neck out would be more like it, but that needs to be backed up with solid evidence. More often than not, you have wild speculations based on a single interesting observation......and you need to watch out for that! The best scientists know the difference between "an interesting observation", and the possibility of something being really significant, and then follow through with those observations.

CuriousCat said...

Sunil : First, thank you for stopping by to read the elaboration of the comment. Second, I said "intellectual honesty" because what I am thinking is a measure of one's honesty in perceiving the limits of one's own understanding, but you are right, I need to coin something different.