The New York Times has an article by Edward Rothstein on the annual Edge question, which John Brockman poses to a large number of writers, scientists and thinkers (many of them all three at once). This year the question is ‘What’s your law?’
There is some bit of wisdom, some rule of nature, some law-like pattern, either grand or small, that you’ve noticed in the universe that might as well be named after you. Gordon Moore has one; Johannes Kepler and Michael Faraday, too. So does Murphy. Since you are so bright, you probably have at least two you can articulate. Send me two laws based on your empirical work and observations you would not mind having tagged with your name. Stick to science and to those scientific areas where you have expertise. Avoid flippancy.
Very good. But Rothstein says an odd thing in his piece.
But curiously, an aura of modesty, tentativeness and skepticism hovers over the submissions — this from a group not renowned for self-abnegation. This may, perhaps, be an admission that fundamental insights are not now to be had. But it may also be an uncertainty about science itself.
But it’s not curious at all. Far from it. Is the reporter not aware that that’s how science is done? Doesn’t he realize that one of the fundamental characteristics of science, one of its definitions, is that it’s always revisable? Offering a tentative ‘law’ implies the opposite of ‘an uncertainty about science itself’; it conveys the kind of confidence one can have in a form of inquiry that is on principle committed to changing its laws when new evidence turns up.
Amusingly enough, I linked to another article in which Colin Blakemore said exactly that only yesterday.
Science must be given back to ordinary people and the key to that is education. I say that with some trepidation, given the political incorrectness of the phrase ‘public understanding of science’ and the new mantra of dialogue and debate. It doesn’t really matter whether people know that the Earth goes round the Sun. But it does matter if they don’t know what a control experiment is, if they think that science produces absolute certainties, if they see differences of opinion among scientists as an indication that the scientific process is flawed, or if they feel robbed of the right to make ethical judgments.
It does matter if people think that science produces absolute certainties. Apparently the place to start is with journalists.