Bill Carmichael: False formula for true science

I WAS lucky enough at school to be taught by an absolutely brilliant physics teacher.

He was an ex-military man, a stickler for discipline, but also with a wickedly dry sense of humour.

He managed to pull off that difficult trick for a teacher – keeping order among his often-unruly charges, but also making lessons tremendous fun.

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Everything I learned about the scientific method began with him. He taught us how to design an experiment to test a particular hypothesis, the importance of setting up a control, how to record data accurately and how to write up the results.

He was quick to jump on anyone making untested assumptions. Just because one event invariably followed another, it did not necessarily mean that the first event caused the second, he would explain.

What I learned from him was that at the heart of science should be an unquenchable curiosity about the world around us, a sense of inquiry that would lead us continually to question conventional orthodoxies. He was especially scathing about what he called “received wisdom” and often mentioned the names of Galileo and Darwin as examples of men who bravely followed where the science led them in the teeth of fierce objections from the establishment. He was above all a born sceptic – and I think he would have borne that moniker with pride.

Sadly, I think the state of modern science would make my old physics teacher blow a gasket. Because no longer is scepticism at the heart of the scientific method. In fact, the word sceptic has become a vulgar term of abuse and opprobrium. As far as the scientific establishment is concerned, sceptical is absolutely the worst thing you can be. We are now bluntly told that in many areas of the natural world, even something as complex and poorly understood as the global climate, that the “science is settled” and there is no point in questioning “received wisdom” or conventional orthodoxies as there is nothing new to be learned.

I can just imagine my old teacher’s hackles rising if any pupil had been rash enough to try to feed him this line in his classroom. It is not just the scientific method that has been corrupted, but the language about science too. People who blindly follow one particular theory are described as “believers” while those who express any doubts at all are denounced not just as sceptics but as “heretics” too.

I’m not sure when the language of medieval religion began to be used in a modern scientific context, but it is quite commonplace now, and betrays a very worrying mindset. I suppose it is a good job we don’t burn people at the stake any more.

I’d like to see a renaissance in science, and the rejection of blind belief in favour of rigorous scientific enquiry – and scepticism returned to its rightful place at the heart of science. Of course, throughout history, science has never been free of pressures from both secular and religious leaders.

But today science is more politicised than ever – especially so as the right kind of scientific findings can be used by politicians as an excuse to raise revenue through taxes. So today we have a suspiciously cosy system whereby governments hand out billions in grants to certain, state approved scientists, and in return those scientists come up with findings that allow governments to increase taxes. Sounds decidedly fishy to me. I can’t prove anything, of course, but I suppose you could call me decidedly sceptical.

Breaking point

I’M taking a short break. By the time you read this, I hope to be ensconced in a cosy bar somewhere, spending a few euros.

Although the way things are going at the moment, there’s no guarantee the euro will still exist by the time I get there.