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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