We are all deeply conscious today that the enthusiasm of our forbearers for the marvellous achievements of Newtonian mechanics led them to make generalisations in this area of predictability which, indeed, we have generally tended to believe before 1960, but which we now recognise were false. We collectively wish to apologise for having misled the general educated public by spreading ideas about the determinism of systems satisfying Newton’s laws of motion that, after 1960, were to be proved incorrect.
An extract from a paper entitled The recently recognised failure of predictability in Newtonian Dynamics
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series A, Vol 407, No. 1832
This is taken from a paper written by the late Sir James Lighthill, who at the time was President of the International Union of Theoritical and Applied Mechanics, and who incidentally also held the position of Lucansian Professor of Mathematics in Cambridge, a position which was first filled by Isaac Newton himself (Stephen Hawking is currently holding the post). The reference to Newtonian mechanics is significant here because it was in this area more than any other that the notion of absolute truth was (is?) most often associated.
The idea that Physics (built on mathematical rules) is the most fundamental knowledge that exists, and all other knowledge is built on this, can be traced back to the writings of the the positivist Auguste Compte.
Compte coined the term sociology; he saw it as giving meaning to all the other sciences – holding them all together as it were.
This is nicely caricatured in the cartoon below.
Compte didn’t actually consider Mathematics to be a science; it was merely a tool used by scientists!
Here’s a rather more profound clip from Jacob Bronowski’s Ascent of Man. At 2:00
We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power.
Thanks to my friend Prof Kirk Junker for pointing out the paper to me.
Picking out the greatest disservice we do to out students as science-teachers is no easy task; there is quite an impressive list to pick from. Not reflecting or even being aware of this is in itself significant. I think C.S. Pierce put it best when he wrote “Find a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics [philosophy] . . . and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticised metaphyiscs with which they are packed.”
This year marks the 200th birthday of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th birthday of the publication of his famous book On the Origin of Species, so it seems like a good opportunity to address at least one of these issues here, namely the concept of absolute certainty in Science.
Science does not offer absolute proof; it never has and it never will. Science (and scientists, and science teachers) are their own worst enemy here, because for hundreds of years we have been (tacitly or otherwise) giving the impression that Science does offer – and can find – certainty.
A second related contributory factor is the word ‘Theory’. It has two completely different meanings, depending on whether it is being used in a scientific context or in general parlance. So where, in a student’s school science education, do we as teachers address this?
There’s a nice example of this in Richard Dawkins The Root of all Evil; See this in action at 8 minutes 30 seconds into the clip below.
The key here is at the very end.
Interviewee: You say “this is truth, because it’s based on evidence. That’s such a fuddy answer.”
Dawkins: We don’t say that, we say “we’re struggling towards the truth, and as new evidence comes in we refine it”.
Can’t recall ever saying that in my lessons, or indeed ever having heard it from a science teacher either.
Maybe the problem lies with us.
How many of us for that matter would be able to distinguish between the following:
(and for two marks can you put a scientist’s name to each one?)