Sean Carroll on What It Means to Have a “Sciencey Attitude”

I like this pithy summary, by Sean Carroll, of what science is:

Propose an idea, see where it leads, toss it out if it conflicts with the data, build on it if it seems promising.

But what if your idea seems, well, crazy?

Carroll has a thought about that as well. If your idea is “speculative,” it’s okay, so long as it’s a:

. . . well-defined idea, and [you] carry it through to its logical conclusions. That’s what scientists are supposed to do.

The two Carroll observations above were made in the context of a scientific idea, put forward in an article this past year, by two physicists. The idea was conventionally wild, and it drew some bad press and blog sassing. Carroll wrote this in the physicists’ defense:

The disappointing thing about the responses to the article is how non-intellectual they have been. I haven’t heard “the NN argument against contributions to the imaginary action that are homogeneous in field types is specious,” . . . It’s been more like “this is completely counter to my everyday experience, therefore it must be crackpot!” That’s not a very sciencey attitude.

I agree with Carroll up to a point here. Few things in this world are more depressing than dull, conservative people who reify their common sense and call novelty and imagination “crazy.” But in evaluating claims, we do  want to ask how a new idea fits with what we already know (or think that we know) about the universe. In other words, new knowledge should cohere with our background knowledge (or one of them ought to go). Thus, when somebody says—“this is completely counter to my everyday experience, therefore it must be crackpot!”—it is very near to the right skeptical and empirical spirit. I don’t mean that it is wise to make of one’s “everyday experience” a source of knowledge surer than that obtained by rigorous science. I mean that it is wise to expect knowledge coherence: show me the coherence between what you think you know and what I think I know, or show me why I’m wrong and you’re right, or I’ll have to show you the door!

Science, in other words, is imagination coupled with epistemic conservatism. It’s a “show me” state. Or, as Carroll put it:

Propose an idea, see where it leads, toss it out if it conflicts with the data, build on it if it seems promising.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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