Science is a Difficult Enterprise to do Well, but It is Worth It

By Richard Herrington, consultant, Research and Statistical Support, University IT

I’ve been pensive of late, and I thought I’d share some words of wisdom from two intellectuals (one a mathematician and the other an economist) whose thoughts have inspired me throughout the years. The two quotations I’m sharing are framed on my office wall – this reflects the degree to which I find deep meaning in their words. The first is from Henri Poincaré.Henri Poincaré

From “Science and Hypothesis” (1902) by Henri Poincaré: “To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient Solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.”

And, the second is from E.F. Schumacher.

E.F. SchumacherFrom “Small is Beautiful” by E.F. Schumacher

“When the Lord created the world and people to live in it - an enterprise which, according to modern science, took a very long time – I could well imagine that He reasoned with Himself as follows: ’If I make everything predictable, these human beings, whom I have endowed with pretty good brains, will undoubtedly learn to predict everything, and they will thereupon have no motive to do anything at all, because they will recognize that the future is totally determined and cannot be influenced by any human action.

On the other hand, if I make everything unpredictable: they will gradually discover that there is no rational basis for any decision whatsoever and, as in the first case, they will thereupon have no motive to do anything at all.

Neither scheme would make sense. I must, therefore, create a mixture of the two. Let some things be predictable and let others be unpredictable, They will then, amongst many other things, have the very important task of finding out which is which.”

I had only two New Year’s resolutions this year:  Exercise more – walk every day to and from the university – so far, so good. The other commitment I made to myself was to try and keep abreast of the political and cultural trends occurring daily – that is, read news feeds, and keep updated with what is going on in the world around me.  

This last one may sound a bit odd: ‘Doesn’t the average U.S. citizen already do this?’.  

Perhaps, but I tend to stay focused on the topics I love – applied research methodologies in the sciences. It is difficult to keep up with statistical methodologies and research methodologies because they are inter-disciplinary and evolving in the literature at an accelerating pace. So, I don’t get out much, and as my nose is usually stuck in an article or a methods book, I don’t have time for reading news feeds.  

So, I thought I’d change this “bad” habit, be a bit more balanced: try to not to be the last person to find out that we’ve bombed a foreign country – or to be the last person to find out that our economy has collapsed (and that large numbers of professionals are being "allowed to retire" immediately) –  or, perhaps more importantly, to find out that we’ve elected a large number of government officials who see the application of modern science to the health and safety of the public at large as a regulatory nuisance.

I’ve been successful in keeping up with the news feeds – political, cultural, technological and scientific. However, I seem to be much more psychologically depressed now.   

It seems “truth” and “facts” (perhaps even intellectualism itself) are under attack from a rather sizable fraction within our society – intellectual acts of critical reasoning get portrayed as lying outside the norm of what should be considered as practical and common-sensical (as if reasoning and practicality are at odds!).   

While I’m sure that anti-intellectualism has long historical roots in the U.S., I seem to be overwhelmed with the feeling that anti-intellectualism is an acute force in public discourse at the moment. So, I turn to my own personal muses’ words of wisdom during my anxious states. Perhaps their words can provide meaning and inspire hope for you as well.

References

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered
https://archive.org/details/SmallIsBeautiful-E.F.Shumacher

Henri Poincaré, Science and Hypothesis (1902)
https://www.gutenberg.org/files/37157/37157-pdf.pdf