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The Meaning of It All

The Meaning of It All

The exceptions to any rule are most interesting in themselves, for they show us that the old rule is wrong. And it is most exciting, then, to find out what the right rule, if any, is. The exception is studied, along with other conditions that produce similar effects. The scientist tries to find more exceptions and to determine the characteristics of the exceptions, a process that is continually exciting as it develops. He does not try to avoid showing that the rules are wrong; there is progress and excitement in the exact opposite. He tries to prove himself wrong as quickly as possible.

The principle that observation is the judge imposes a severe limitation to the kind of questions that can be answered. They are limited to questions that you can put this way: “if I do this, what will happen?” There are ways to try it and see. Questions like, “should I do this?” and “what is the value of this?” are not of the same kind.

But if a thing is not scientific, if it cannot be subjected to the test of observation, this does not mean that it is dead, or wrong, or stupid. We are not trying to argue that science is somehow good and other things are somehow not good. Scientists take all those things that can be analyzed by observation, and thus the things called science are found out. But there are some things left out, for which the method does not work. This does not mean that those things are unimportant. They are, in fact, in many ways the most important. In any decision for action, when you have to make up your mind what to do, there is always a “should” involved, and this cannot be worked out from “if I do this, what will happen?” alone. You say, “Sure, you see what will happen, and then you decide whether you want it to happen or not.” But that is the step the scientist cannot take. You can figure out what is going to happen, but then you have to decide whether you like it that way or not.

There are in science a number of technical consequences that follow from the principle of observation as judge. For example, the observation cannot be rough. You have to be very careful. There may have been a piece of dirt in the apparatus that made the color change; it was not what you thought. You have to check the observations very carefully, and then recheck them, to be sure that you understand what all the conditions are and that you did not misinterpret what you did.

It is interesting that this thoroughness, which is a virtue, is often misunderstood. When someone says a thing has been done scientifically, often all he means is that it has been done thoroughly. I have heard people talk of the “scientific” extermination of the Jews in Germany. There was nothing scientific about it. It was only thorough. There was no question of making observations and then checking them in order to determine something. In that sense, there were “scientific” exterminations of people in Roman times and in other periods when science was not so far developed as it is today and not much attention was paid to observation. In such cases, people should say “thorough” or “thoroughgoing,” instead of “scientific.”

There are a number of special techniques associated with the game of making observations, and much of what is called the philosophy of science is concerned with a discussion of these techniques. The interpretation of a result is an example. To take a trivial instance, there is a famous joke about a man who complains to a friend of a mysterious phenomenon. The white horses on his farm eat more than the black horses. He worries about this and cannot understand it, until his friend suggests that maybe he has more white horses than black ones.

It sounds ridiculous, but think how many times similar mistakes are made in judgments of various kinds. You say, “My sister had a cold, and in two weeks …” It is one of those cases, if you think about it, in which there were more white horses. Scientific reasoning requires a certain discipline, and we should try to teach this discipline, because even on the lowest level such errors are unnecessary today.

Another important characteristic of science is its objectivity. It is necessary to look at the results of observation objectively, because you, the experimenter, might like one result better than another. You perform the experiment several times, and because of irregularities, like pieces of dirt falling in, the result varies from time to time. You do not have everything under control. You like the result to be a certain way, so the times it comes out that way, you say, “See, it comes out this particular way.” The next time you do the experiment it comes out different. Maybe there was a piece of dirt in it the first time, but you ignore it.

These things seem obvious, but people do not pay enough attention to them in deciding scientific questions or questions on the periphery of science. There could be a certain amount of sense, for example, in the way you analyze the question of whether stocks went up or down because of what the President said or did not say.

Another very important technical point is that the more specific a rule is, the more interesting it is. The more definite the statement, the more interesting it is to test. If someone were to propose that the planets go around the sun because all planet matter has a kind of tendency for movement, a kind of motility, let us call it an “oomph,” this theory could explain a number of other phenomena as well. So this is a good theory, is it not? No. It is nowhere near as good as a proposition that the planets move around the sun under the influence of a central force which varies exactly inversely as the square of the distance from the center. The second theory is better because it is so specific; it is so obviously unlikely to be the result of chance. It is so definite that the barest error in the movement can show that it is wrong; but the planets could wobble all over the place, and, according to the first theory, you could say, “Well, that is the funny behavior of the ‘oomph.’”

So the more specific the rule, the more powerful it is, the more liable it is to exceptions, and the more interesting and valuable it is to check.

Words can be meaningless. If they are used in such a way that no sharp conclusions can be drawn, as in my example of “oomph,” then the proposition they state is almost meaningless, because you can explain almost anything by the assertion that things have a tendency to motility. A great deal has been made of this by philosophers, who say that words must be defined extremely precisely. Actually, I disagree somewhat with this; I think that extreme precision of definition is often not worthwhile, and sometimes it is not possible—in fact mostly it is not possible, but I will not get into that argument here.

Most of what many philosophers say about science is really on the technical aspects involved in trying to make sure the method works pretty well. Whether these technical points would be useful in a field in which observation is not the judge I have no idea. I am not going to say that everything has to be done the same way when a method of testing different from observation is used. In a different field perhaps it is not so important to be careful of the meaning of words or that the rules be specific, and so on. I do not know.

In all of this I have left out something very important. I said that observation is the judge of the truth of an idea. But where does the idea come from? The rapid progress and development of science requires that human beings invent something to test.

It was thought in the Middle Ages that people simply make many observations, and the observations themselves suggest the laws. But it does not work that way. It takes much more imagination than that. So the next thing we have to talk about is where the new ideas come from. Actually, it does not make any difference, as long as they come. We have a way of checking whether an idea is correct or not that has nothing to do with where it came from. We simply test it against observation. So in science we are not interested in where an idea comes from.

There is no authority who decides what is a good idea. We have lost the need to go to an authority to find out whether an idea is true or not. We can read an authority and let him suggest something; we can try it out and find out if it is true or not. If it is not true, so much the worse— so the “authorities” lose some of their “authority.”

The relations among scientists were at first very argumentative, as they are among most people. This was true in the early days of physics, for example. But in physics today the relations are extremely good. A scientific argument is likely to involve a great deal of laughter and uncertainty on both sides, with both sides thinking up experiments and offering to bet on the outcome. In physics there are so many accumulated observations that it is almost impossible to think of a new idea which is different from all the ideas that have been thought of before and yet that agrees with all the observations that have already been made. And so if you get anything new from anyone, anywhere, you welcome it, and you do not argue about why the other person says it is so.

Many sciences have not developed this far, and the situation is the way it was in the early days of physics, when there was a lot of arguing because there were not so many observations. I bring this up because it is interesting that human relationships, if there is an independent way of judging truth, can become unargumentative.

Most people find it surprising that in science there is no interest in the background of the author of an idea or in his motive in expounding it. You listen, and if it sounds like a thing worth trying, a thing that could be tried, is different, and is not obviously contrary to something observed before, it gets exciting and worthwhile. You do not have to worry about how long he has studied or why he wants you to listen to him. In that sense it makes no difference where the ideas come from. Their real origin is unknown; we call it the imagination of the human brain, the creative imagination—it is known; it is just one of those “oomphs.”

It is surprising that people do not believe that there is imagination in science. It is a very interesting kind of imagination, unlike that of the artist. The great difficulty is in trying to imagine something that you have never seen, that is consistent in every detail with what has already been seen, and that is different from what has been thought of; furthermore, it must be definite and not a vague proposition. That is indeed difficult.


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