Freeman Dyson on the rampage

Freeman Dyson muses on outsider science in the NYRB, “Science on the Rampage”:

In my career as a scientist, I twice had the good fortune to be a personal friend of a famous dissident. One dissident, Sir Arthur Eddington, was an insider like Thomson and Tait. The other, Immanuel Velikovsky, was an outsider like Carter. Both of them were tragic figures, intellectually brilliant and morally courageous, with the same fatal flaw as Carter. Both of them were possessed by fantasies that people with ordinary common sense could recognize as nonsense. I made it clear to both that I did not believe their fantasies, but I admired them as human beings and as imaginative artists. I admired them most of all for their stubborn refusal to remain silent. With the whole world against them, they remained true to their beliefs. I could not pretend to agree with them, but I could give them my moral support.

My main problem with Dyson’s view is that it doesn’t take into account those cranks and pseudoscientists who are actually acting in bad faith – peddlers of snake oil, front-men for deep-pocketed business interests threatened by research on tobacco, climate change, etc., and religious fundamentalists who can’t make peace between their faith and thoroughly established science. In fact, it’s likely that there are many, many more dishonest pseudoscientists than the deluded but honest amateurs that Dyson describes, and his knee-jerk sympathy for the scientific outsider makes him a potential sucker.

As a skilled scientist, Dyson does acknowledge the value of expertise and rigorous, quantitative and empirical thinking in science:

So far as science in general is concerned, the answer to Wertheim’s question is clear. There is good reason to pay more attention to scientific experts than to amateurs, so long as science is based on experiments. Only trained experts can do experiments with the care and precision that experiments demand. Expert experimenters are not infallible, but they are less fallible than amateurs. Experiments give orthodox beliefs a solid basis. An experimental basis exists for the established disciplines of physics and chemistry and biology. However, some parts of physics are less secure than others, because the experts in physics are divided into experimenters and theorists.

Perhaps Dyson’s sympathies lie where they do because he is a physicist – many areas of physics are esoteric, not socially controversial or of immediate policy import, and because the large community of string theorists works far from any possible empirical support. Biomedical and environmental scientists, unfortunately, are much more likely to be the subjects of attack by politicians, con artists, fundamentalists, and other varieties of huckster. The result is that defenders of scientific integrity have to fight back, and hard. This is unfortunate, because we should all have the luxury of indulging honest and imaginative outsiders that Dyson values:

Science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination. “Physics at the Fringe” is what happens when imagination loses touch with observation. Imagination by itself can still enlarge our vision when observation fails. The mythologies of Carter and Velikovsky fail to be science, but they are works of art and high imagining. As William Blake told us long ago, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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