Methods very unscientific

To Light Such a Candle
June 26, 1998

Naivety can sometimes be refreshingly revealing. Keith Laidler sets out like a latter-day Dr Pangloss to discover how scientific discoveries are made. He is, by his own admission, a good, hard scientist who knows a thing or two about history. So unearthing the pattern behind ground-breaking discoveries should not be too taxing.

Except that Laidler's understanding of science is that of scientists. Like most scientists, he has a Victorian appreciation of science as a sort of mythical quest for "discovering the truth". Moreover, like many scientists, he thinks history is little more than linear progress up the ladder of evolution. So, To Light Such a Candle should be an all-round bad book: peddling poor, out-dated notions of science and even worse understanding of history.

But it isn't.

Laidler's saving grace is his childlike culpability and innocence. He pursues his inquiry with the determination of a curious child who keeps asking "why". When the answers do not make sense, he has the honesty to accept that the solutions to his one-dimensional quest are quite meaningless. It all adds up to a rather illuminating endeavour.

We begin with the puzzling question: why do we have "a serious discrepancy between the public's and scientists' idea of science"? It does not occur to Laidler that it could have something to do with the avalanche of horror stories from the BSE crisis to revelations that scientists freely experimented on the blacks and the poor in the 1950s and 1960s, concerns about genetic manipulations and cloning or even the Bomb and chemical and biological weapons. Rather, Laidler suggests, the public cannot distinguish between good and bad science. Bad science is based on sheer dishonesty and personal profit; the alleged discovery of cold fusion and n-rays are good examples. Good science is based on nobler goals. But Laidler is such a nice person that he does not realise that by his criteria good science has all but disappeared: the majority of contemporary science is done or funded by the corporations and the military and all of it comes with a profit margin. No wonder the public is worried.

We proceed to an infantile topology of science where Laidler tries to distinguish science from technology, "hard science" from "soft science", and "hard technology" from "soft technology". Hard sciences such as physics combine theory and experiments. Soft sciences such as geology and biology are descriptive and incapable of mathematical treatment. Hard technology does what it says it does: a car takes you where you want to go. Soft technology, like a drug, may not do what it is intended to do.

When he describes particular scientists and their discoveries, what the subtitle calls "Chapters in the History of Science and Technology", Laidler is rather good. These include James Watt's struggle with thermodynamics, Michael Faraday's work on electric power, James Clerk Maxwell's achievements in radio transmission, J. J. Thomson's discovery of the electron, and Planck and Einstein's work on quantum theory and relativity. His enthusiasm for his subject shines through and his child's eye enables him to present his material with cogency and clarity.

But what of Laidler's main question: how discoveries are made? Alas, things here, he admits, are much more complicated. Little can be generalised. There is no common pattern either of scientific discovery or technical advance.

Indeed, to his total chagrin, there is no method in the madness of scientists. "As a scientist or a engineer struggles through the mass of experimental data, there is no well marked path to scientific theory." There are no signposts, no signals, no markings: only an open road without any sense of direction.

So anything and everything is possible in science. Laidler advises scientists to follow the Newtonian path to scientific discovery. Do what you think is right, even if it means suppressing or ignoring data and experimental evidence that clashes with your pet theories. "Newton's whole life is an object lesson on the importance of not sticking to a so-called scientific method. In many ways, Newton's methods were quite 'unscientific'. Besides keeping quiet about facts that did not fit his observations, he was guided by metaphysical and religious arguments, which many modern scientists would condemn."

Truth will out, Laidler asserts. No matter what scientists do and how they do it, the purity, goodness and the truth of science will ensure that we continue our trajectory of scientific discoveries and progress.

Laidler does end up reconfirming a host of self-evident truths. Scientists often have little or no understanding of how science actually works, what it is that they actually do, and how discoveries are really made. Scientists often make lousy historians. And history, in this the best of all possible worlds, is there to humble the scientists. It should be a required part of the rite of passage into the mystical brotherhood of science for all scientists to read such bunkum.

Ziauddin Sardar is visiting professor of science policy, Middlesex University.

To Light Such a Candle: Chapters in the History of Science and Technology

Author - Keith J. Laidler
ISBN - 0 19 850056 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 384

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