Tuesday, April 15, 2008

True Believers and True Scientists

My home town is Midland Texas... I was actually born in Odessa, but my folks moved to Midland before my first birthday, so Midland's where I'm from.
I like to joke that Midland is a great place to be from because you never get homesick... but it was a good place to grow up.

I don't often feel like bragging about Midland, but on Sunday my local paper (the Austin American Statesman) published an article about fellow Midland-boy James Pennebaker - the chairman of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin.

One of Pennebaker's quotes in this article made my day:

"I'm a problem for a lot of people, because I'm not a true believer," he says. "True believers have a theory and a worldview and their academic job is to validate their worldview. I'll sell out my research in a minute if you show me that it doesn't work or has a problem. I'll dump it and walk in the other direction. What's exciting about all this is that I want to know how the world works. I don't know how it works, so anything's fine with me. "
If those aren't the words of a True Scientist then I don't know what a True Scientist is.

As for me... I have to admit that I am a Serial True Believer. I always seem to passionately believe in something-or-other, and I often go overboard to "validate my worldview". I'd like to think that I'm getting better, but I'm a long way from following Pennebaker's example.

I think that most Scientists are True Believers. History certainly supports my belief... Johannes Kepler was a True Believer of the theory that planets move around the Sun in orbits that are related to spheres. He tried valiantly to prove this belief, but he couldn't... the data simply didn't support his efforts. The data indicated that planets move in elliptical orbits... and Kepler, though he hated the idea, had to finally admit it and publish his conclusions.

Personally, I think that Kepler's True Belief is what kept him going. His passion to prove something that he believed to be true gave him the energy to crunch through all of Tycho Brahe's thousands of observations. Folks like Pennebaker are rare... most of us need a "cause" to get us off the couch and away from the TV.

Unfortunately, folks like Kepler are as rare as folks like Pennebaker. Kepler was a True Believer who could give up his Belief when he discovered that it wasn't True.

Scientists are People... and lots of People are True Believers, and this can really give Science a black eye from time to time. Lots of Scientists are so passionate about their True Beliefs that they lose their objectivity. At best this leads to Sloppy Science, and at worse it leads to outright fraud (remember Piltdown man? Cold Fusion? Fossils in Martian Meteorites?)

So there's the conundrum... without passion most Scientists lack the drive to do the hard work necessary to decode the mysteries of the Universe... but with blind passion a Scientist can be led to abandon the Scientific Method altogether.

Given the problems that the world is facing, I Truly Believe that we need as many "True Scientists" (like Pennebaker) as we can get. Darn... there I go True Believing again ;-)
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