There are a lot of myths about science, not least that it proceeds in an orderly manner, cool, detached and unemotional. In the 1960s, philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn rather put the kibosh on that. Scientists, he said, get attached to paradigms, the orthodoxies of their day. When cracks appear, they paper over them, or rather, find ways to make sense of them within the terms of the paradigm. It’s only when the cracks become unsustainably large that a new paradigm emerges, and even then it tends to be the next, younger generation of scientists who accept the change. Science, mired as it is in the messy world of human affairs, proceeds as a series of revolutions, with all the connotations that word implies.
The news that a group of Italian scientists may have measured neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light seems to have opened the very first crack in the Einsteinian paradigm (in which it is a fundamental truth that nothing travels faster than the speed of light). What I find fascinating is the almost light-speed with which physicists have rushed to defend current orthodoxy. Einstein’s predictions have been proved right time and again, they say. We cannot leap to hasty conclusions. Even the Italian scientists daren’t publish their results, for fear of committing scientific heresy. Instead they’ve invited the scientific community at large to try and find out what they’ve done wrong. Dispassionate? Hardly.
The first cracks in my own faith in science opened while I was still an undergraduate thanks to a brilliantly taught module on its history and philosophy. It heralded my eventual move across the floor to the humanities.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-science. Far from it.
No, my beef is with scientists’ certainty, the swagger with which they typically assume they will eventually understand everything, the confidence that theirs is the one true way. Such hubris, surely, is unfounded by history, in which all scientific theories have eventually been proved if not wrong then not totally right. Neither can it be proved experimentally, by the tools and methods of science. It’s rather a belief, a creed. Science, in spite of its largely (though not exclusively) atheist stance, behaves remarkably like a religion.
Those racing neutrinos may yet prove to be beholden to Einstein’s commandments but I’m sure I’m not alone in willing them across the finish line. If the observations prove correct then we’ll be able to witness first hand the machinations, intrigue and blood-letting of a full blown Kuhnian revolution. And if that injects a little humility into science then so much the better.