Saturday 1 May 2010

Review: Pygmy science (2010)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVIII No. 1 Spring 2010

By Perig Gouanvic

What's Wrong with Science?Towards a People's Rational Science of Delight and Compassion 
by Nicholas Maxwell
Pentire Press, 2009, 290 pp., UKP 6.99 ISBN 0955224012

Do you know Pygmy science? In What's Wrong with Science?, Nicholas Maxwell boldly states from the start that ideal science could be best described as 'Pygmy science': like Pygmy's songs described in Colin Turnbull's influential 1961 book The Forest People, it should help Humans 'experience that which is beautiful in Nature.' Technologies result from these songs, they are those parts of nature that best prove that our songs have reawakened in Nature her ability to protect and amaze us. But Maxwell's book, a theatrical play really, is not about what is beautiful in Nature, but about what's wrong in our science. Equip yourself with the tools of a producer, because this play in two acts will require that you feature the Pygmy philosopher of science and the Bantu scientist, in the first act, and a merry crowd made of a Marxist, a Liberal, a Romantic, a Buddhist, and many others, during the second act.

Our scientists are like the Bantu. They believe that Nature is dangerous, and that it should be fought. They have elaborate rituals to exorcise the evils of Nature. Maxwell's thesis, as it unfolds during the first act here, the debate between the philosopher and the scientist, is really that there are Pygmys who think they are Bantus and the Pygmys who know they aren't - like Einstein or Kepler, those mystics. Or, in other words, what's wrong with scientists is really that they are neurotic, and that their goals (which are Pygmy-like) and their practices (which are Bantu-like) don't match, as Maxwell and his philosopher explain. Instead, most scientists just want to have fun, and they love at least some aspect of nature. Karl Popper (the archetypal Bantu) was wrong: rarely do scientists wake up in the morning and walk merrily to the lab propelled by the hope of creating theories to subsequently be proven wrong.

Once it becomes obvious that this posture of scientists is, really, that of any honourable man or woman who lends oneself to criticism, and that science has no monopoly on honesty, what is left? What is left is the sad state of affairs today, where some people wave the flag of science, as Paul Feyerabend said, to champion their cause, as if the quest for 'neutral' data was the most honest one. Science is about goals, says Maxwell.

What a beautiful paradox, detailed in the debates between the Scientist and the Philosopher. But what does Nature says? (S)he is not amongst the protagonists, because the object of science, in Maxwell's terms, is something to be either sung about or to be fought against. Personally, although I wouldn't personify Nature, I would find a way to let 'her' make an appearance in the play. Isn't it what happens in the course of our scientific or otherwise honest endeavours, when it seems that reality, nature, biology, the cosmos, the unconscious, is talking to us?

Let's return to the Pygmys: they sing about what's beautiful in nature. Do they think that nature is a being who has beautiful features? Probably. But is Maxwell's ideal science about a being that is intrinsically beautiful, or about the true scientists who make beauty happen? This is not to annoy the reader with a philosophical paradox (if no one sees the leaf falling from the tree, does it fall?). But rather, the problem raised by Maxwell's book is: how can one talk about science without talking about what science is about?

Nicholas Maxwell talks about Einstein's endeavours, mainly. (Imagine a Pygmy Einstein ? Rather convincing, isn't it?) However, there is a prejudice in favour of physics in his depiction of science. Maxwell, in the second act, outrageously (but quite amusingly) steps into the debate and depicts his metaphor of the world. In his world, the sciences are arranged like the layers of an onion. At the onion's core, of course, is physics. Now personally, I would say that physics should be the outermost layers of the onion. Physics does not relate to my songs about nature, which are rather different. (To do with my amazement about the beauty of neurochemistry, its complexities, its poetic value...) 
I suspect many scientists think about the object of their research in a similar way, and that it is this that makes them wake up and go to work. Is Maxwell doing justice to these scientists who wake up without, obviously, seeking a Popperian refutation? Nicholas Maxwell invites us to be involved in science. Those ivory tower types wish we wouldn't, that's true. But I am left wondering: if curiousity is absent, or spoken about indirectly, how can science fructify? The songs of the philosopher still ring in my ears, but the long arguments with the scientist were easy to forget. Why argue with someone if you can't share your amazement?

Address for correspondence: Perig Gouanvic can be contacted vis The Philosopher

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