I came across a collection of 1950’s vintage essays by Robert Oppenheimer that’s been lurking quietly unattended in my book collection for who knows how long.
Reading essays by scientifically accomplished people from long ago is always an eye-opener. Bits discovered therein have been leaking into my tweet stream this week.
Here is what I take to be the central theme of the essays in this book:
What can and should society learn from an abstract understanding of the practice of science?
We are interested here not in the content of science, but in its process.
Oppenheimer believed that the answer was bigger than “nothing much”. I do too.
Somewhere in the usenet archives are a few thoughts of my own on the subject from the early 1990s. To my recollection, it was kicked off by ruminations about a TV news program I had seem, entitled (if memory serves) something like “This Week In Science”.
Leaving aside the implausibility of any television network attempting such a thing today, it must be admitted that the program was a failure, a crashing bore. This is because in any given week *Nothing Happens In Science*. Or, more precisely, if something worthy of note happened in science in a given week, nobody will really know that in twenty years.
Contrast this with the sturm und drang of the more conventional news. Personalities, postures, bombastic claims, indictments, excitements, threats of war, hopes for peace! There’s never any shortage of things to talk about,
Ah but come back those twenty years later, and who has made progress? The scientific landscape is utterly altered, while the political landscape is the same mess, with some of the same people strutting on the stage with the same postures?
So I surmised that there is something in the social nature of scientific inquiry that *makes progress possible* which is absent in the social nature of political pursuits (with economic pursuits perhaps holding an intermediate position). And I expressed a hope that everybody else could pick up those skills.
Which skills would they be? A capacity to collaborate with an opponent. A capacity to refine opinions and even reverse them in the face of evidence. A hunger for more evidence against which to test one’s ideas. A genuine pleasure in testing oneself and one’s beliefs.
Science is an odd combination of cooperation and competition. Science is arranged around truth. Yes, if you find the right truths and promote them right, you’ll do fairly well in your career, but everyone knows (or at least should know) that it’s the truths that matter, not your career.
The rest of society is arranged around winners and losers. And it makes little progress.
Do we model ourselves on the steady progress of science, or on courtroom dramas?
It’s clear how the press processes things. This versus that. Opinions from “both sides”. They can’t help themselves. And this is what the public thinks science is about. Warring camps, multiple non-overlapping clusters of opinion. Like pro-choice vs pro-life. Even the nomenclature used by the camps can never overlap.
So my modest proposal was that people adopt what at that time was known without much complexity as a “skeptical” attitude. To spend as much time trying to let go of your own ideas as to convince others of their validity. To remember that the person easiest for you to fool is yourself, and to guard, vigilantly and constantly, against it. To go out of your way to concede those parts of your opponent’s argument as you can bring yourself to do, even if that’s often met with bad faith.
I hoped for seeing, in my lifetime, increasing the zone of consensus among the general public. That’s worked out well so far, hasn’t it?
Here is how Oppenheimer frames the question in his 1947 lecture “Physics in the Contemporary World”
( paywalled at https://doi.org/10.1080/00963402.1948.11460172 ; selected excerpts )
“This is the question of whether there are elements in the way of life of the scientist which need not be restricted to the professional, and which have hope in them for bringing dignity and courage and serenity to other men. Science is not all of the life of reason; it is a part of it. As such, what can it mean to man?”
“In this field quite ordinary men, using what are in the last analysis only the tools which are generally available in our society, manage to unfold for themselves and all others who wish to learn, the rich story of one aspect of the physical world, and of man’s experience. We learnt to throw away those instruments of action and those modes of description which are not appropriate to the reality we are trying to discern, and in this most painful discipline find ourselves modest before the world
“The question which is so much in our mind is whether a comparable experience, a comparable discipline, a comparable community of interest, can in any way be available to mankind at large.”
“Clearly, if we raise at all this question that I have raised, it must be in the hope that there are other areas of human experience that may be discovered or invented or cultivated, and to which the qualities which distinguish scientific life may be congenial and appropriate.”
“In the first instance the work of science is co-operative; a scientist takes his colleagues as judges, competitors and collaborators. That does not mean, of course, that he loves his colleagues; but it gives him a way of living with them which would not be without its use in the contemporary world.”
“Science is novelty and change. When it closes it dies. These qualities constitute a way of life which of course does not make wise men from foolish, or good men from wicked, but which has its beauty and which seems singularly suited to man’s estate on earth.”
“We become fully aware of the need for caution if we look for a moment at what are called the social problems of the day and try to think what one could mean by approaching them in the scientific spirit… In short, almost all the preconditions of scientific activity are missing… All that we have from science in facing such great questions is a memory of our professional life, which makes us somewhat skeptical of other people’s assertions, somewhat critical of enthusiasms so difficult to define and to control.”
Oppenheimer closes with “I have had to leave this essential question unanswered: I am not at all proud of that.”
I should point out that these excerpts come from a rather long and meandering essay – this is the unifying theme, but there is much more of considerable interest, some directly and some rather frustratingly tangentially related.
Though it’s a topic I once thought about a lot, I’m not sure I have much to add except that I’d like to hear others’ opinion about it. To motivate the conversation I’ll quote from another essay in the same volume, The Encouragement of Science (1950):
“We need to recognize the situation as new; we need to come to it with something of the same spirit as the scientist’s when he has conducted an experiment and finds that the results are totally other than those he had anticipated.”
As I see things, the complexity of our collective circumstances has been increasing, and the competence of our collective reasoning and planning has not been keeping pace. In the last few years, to the contrary, it seems to have taken a sharp turn for the worse. I don’t see extant political configurations as capable of rising to the occasion. But this will not make the occasion go away. It’s definitely time for some social creativity. Can looking toward successful institutions, the best moments in scientific history not least among them, at least serve as a source of inspiration?
-Michael Tobis (mt)