Close-minded Science  |
Skeptical  |


by R. A. Lyttleton 1977

THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF IGNORANCE, edited by R. Duncan and M. Weston-Smith
1977 Pergamon Press Ltd, Oxford UK pp13-14
Before discussing how new ideas and new hypotheses, on which new theories may be built and tested, come to be invented, let us leave the theme for a moment and consider what attitude a scientist should adopt towards such novelties, or indeed towards existing ideas and theories. In a recent lecture Medawar dealt with this briefly by the piece of advice, "Never fall in love with your hypothesis." But controlled energy and enthusiasm are needed to work upon and examine a hypothesis sufficiently carefully, and these are qualities turned on as it were by emotional drive, and if one succeeds in not actually falling in love with one's ideas, which state notoriously weakens if not altogether disables a person's judgment and critical faculty, then how far should one go in relation to a new idea, whether one's own or someone else's? This is obviously a subjective question, but knowably or not, if an idea comes to the awareness of a scientist, he will begin to adopt some attitude to it. This will result from interaction of the idea with all his previous experience, remembered or not, and his character and temperament and so on, and these will combine of their own accord to determine an attitude.

The scientific attitude to adopt in regard to any hypothesis in my view (and we are talking of subjective things,) can be represented schemat- ically by means of a simple model of a bead that can be moved on a short length of horizontal wire (see diagram on next page). Suppose the left-hand end denoted by 0 (zero) and the right-hand end by 1 (unity), and let 0 correspond to complete disbelief unqualified, and the right-hand end 1 to absolute certain belief in the hypothesis. Now the principle of practice that I would urge on all intending scientists in regard to any and every hypothesis is:


This is quite possible, for however close to the end one may have set it, there are still an infinite number of points to move the bead to in either direction in the light of new data or new arguments or whatever. If genuine scientific data reach your attention that increase your confidence in the hypothesis, then move your bead suitably towards 1, but never let it quite get there. If decreasing confidence is engendered by genuine data, then let your bead move towards 0, but again never let it quite reach there. Your changing confidence must be the result of your own independent scientific judgment of the data or arguments or proofs and so on, and not be allowed to result from arguments based on reputation of others, nor upon such things as numerical strength of believers or disbelievers. When Einstein heard that a book was being brought out entitled "A Hundred Against Einstein", he merely said "One would be enough!" My own beads for Newtonian dynamics and Maxwell's equations are very near to 1, and for flying saucers and the Loch Ness monster very near to 0. But these it must be emphasized are my own subjective beads, and it seems there exist people whose beads for UFOs are near to 1 or even at it and beyond, the consequences of which we proceed to discuss.

It seems to be a common defect of human minds that they tend to crave for complete certainty of belief or disbelief in anything. Not only is this undesirable scientifically, but it must be recognized that no such state is attainable in science. However successful and reliable a theory may be up to any point of time, further data may come along and show a need for adjustment of the theory, while at the other extreme, however little confidence one has in a hypothesis, new data may change the situation. We come now to the reason why one should never allow a bead ever to get right to 0 or 1: that is, if one does so, the bead will fall into a deep potential-well associated with every facet of non-scientific or even anti-scientific emotion. In some cases the depth may tend to infinity, especially with advancing years, and no amount of data conflicting with the certain belief or disbelief will ever get the bead out of the well back onto even tenor of the wire. Any attempt to bring about the uplifting of a bead so situated, by means of data or reason, can sometimes lead the owner of the bead to manifest further attitudes unworthy scientifically. In some cases it may be useless to discuss the hypothesis or theory to which the bead relates. On the other hand, if the bead is kept somewhere on the wire BETWEEN 0 and 1 always, it can if necessary be moved quite readily in response to new data with the owner remaining calmly tranquil rather than undergoing an emotional upset. With such reaction to hypotheses and theories, one can get genuine scientific pleasure from adjusting one's beads to take account of new data and new arguments. From the small sample that my experience has limited me to, it seems regrettably to be the case that few even among scientists are always capable of keeping their beads on the wire, and much tact may be needed if one wishes to help to restore them to a rational level on the wire, if indeed in some cases it is possible at all. In Nazi Germany, it would have been dangerous indeed to have one's bead on the wire even near to 1 as an attitude to the theory that theirs was a super-race destined to rule the world; 99.9 per cent of the beads were deep down the well and only violent efforts proved sufficient to move some of them. So one of the things I would like to see scientists directed to do is always to keep their beads safely on the wire, in order that their minds may be receptive to new ideas and advances. In the words of one Chan, "Human mind like parachute: work best when open", and OPEN means on the wire somewhere between 0 and 1."

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