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Engineering and the Truth Fairies

Science really doesn't exist. Scientific beliefs are either proved wrong, or else they quickly become engineering. Everything else is untested speculation. —JPH


My interest in science began at an early age, as a boy growing up in postwar England. One of my older sisters, Grace—I was the baby by a large gap in a family with four children, two boys and two girls—was married to a former Royal Air Force radio and electronics technician called Don. He was one of the practical kind that people described as "good with his hands," capable of fixing anything, it seemed. The shelves, additions to the house, and other things that he created out of wood were always true and square, with the pieces fitting perfectly. He would restore pieces of machinery that he had come across rusting in the local tip, and assemble a pile of electrical parts and a coil wound on a cardboard custard container into a working radio. I spent long summer and Christmas vacations at Grace and Don's, learning the art of using and taking care of tools ("The job's not finished until they're cleaned and put away" was one of his maxims), planning the work through ("Measure twice; cut once" was another), and talking with people across the world via some piece of equipment that he'd found in a yard sale and refurbished. Kids today take such things for granted, but there was no e-mail then. Computers were unheard of. Don would never pass by a screw or a bolt lying on the roadside that might be useful for something one day. His children once told me ruefully that they never got to play with their presents on Christmas Day because the paint was never dry.

Although Don was not a scientist, working with him imbued in me an attitude of mind that valued the practicality of science as a way of dealing with life and explaining much about the world. Unlike all of the other creeds, cults, and ideologies that humans had been coming up with for as long as humanity had existed, here was a way of distinguishing between beliefs that were probably true and beliefs that were probably not in ways that gave observable results that could be repeated. Its success was attested to by the new world that had come into existence in—what?—little more than a century. From atoms to galaxies, phenomena were made comprehensible and predictable that had remained cloaked in superstition and ignorance through thousands of years of attempts at inquiry by other means. Airplanes worked; magic carpets didn't. Telephones, radio, and TV enabled anyone, at will, anytime, to accomplish things which before had been conceivable only as miracles. The foot deformities that I had been born with were corrected by surgery, not witch doctoring, enabling me later to enjoy a healthy life mountain hiking and rock climbing as a teenager. Asimov's nonfiction came as a topping to the various other readings I devoured in pursuit of my interest: Science was not only effective and made sense; it could actually be fun too!

I would describe science as formalized common sense. We all know how easily true believers can delude themselves into seeing what they want to see, and even appearances reported accurately are not always to be relied upon. (My older brother was something of a card sharp, so there was nothing particularly strange in the idea of things sometimes not being what they seemed.) What singled science out was its recognition of objective reality: that whatever is true will remain true, regardless of how passionately someone might wish things to be otherwise, or how many others might be induced to share in that persuasion. A simple and obvious enough precept, one would have thought. Yet every other belief system, even when professing commitment to the impartial search for truth, acted otherwise when it came to recruiting a constituency. And hence, it seemed, followed most of the world's squabbles and problems.

So it was natural enough for me to pursue a career in the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough—a few miles from where Grace and Don lived—after passing the requisite three days of qualifying examinations, as a student of electrical, mechanical, and aeronautical engineering. On completion of the general course I went on to specialize in electronics. Later, I moved from design to sales, then into computers, and ended up working with scientists and engineers across-the-board in just about every discipline and area of application. Seeing the way they went about things confirmed the impressions I'd been forming since those boyhood days of working with Don.

The problems that the world had been getting itself into all through history would all be solved straightforwardly once people came around to seeing things the right way. Wars were fought over religions, economic resources, or political rivalries. Well, science showed that men made gods, not vice versa. Sufficiently advanced technologies could produce plenty of resources for everybody, and once those two areas were taken care of, what was there left to create political rivalries over? Then we could be on our way to the stars and concern ourselves with things that were truly interesting.

When I turned to writing in the mid seventies—initially as a result of an office bet, then going full-time when I discovered I liked it—a theme of hard science-fiction with an upbeat note came naturally. I was accused (is that the right word?) of reinventing the genre of the fifties and sixties from the ground up, which was probably true to a large degree, since I had read very little of it, having come into the field from a direction diametrically opposed to that of most writers. The picture of science that I carried into those early stories reflected the idealization of intellectual purity that textbooks and popularizers portray. Impartial research motivated by the pursuit of knowledge assembles facts, which theories are then constructed to explain. The theories are tested by rigorous experiment; if the predicted results are not observed, the theories are modified accordingly, without prejudice, or abandoned. Although the ideal can seldom be achieved in practice, free inquiry and open debate will detect and correct the errors that human frailty makes inevitable. As a result, we move steadily through successively closer approximations toward the Truth.

Such high-flying fancy either attains escape velocity and departs from the realities of Earth totally, or it comes back to ground sometime. My descent from orbit was started by the controversy over nuclear energy. It wasn't just political activists with causes, and journalists cooking a story who were telling the public things that the physicists and engineers I knew in the nuclear field insisted were not so. Other scientists were telling them too. So either scientists were being knowingly dishonest and distorting facts to promote political views; or they were sincere, but ideology or some other kind of bias affected what they were willing to accept as fact; or vested interests and professional blinkers were preventing the people whom I was talking to from seeing things as they were. Whichever way, the ideal of science as an immutable standard of truth where all parties applied the same rules and would be obliged to agree on the same conclusion was in trouble.

I quickly discovered that this was so in other fields too. Atmospheric scientists whom I knew deplored the things being said about ozone holes. Chemists scoffed at the hysteria over carcinogens. A curious thing I noticed, however, was that specialists quick to denounce the misinformation and sensationalized reporting concerning their own field would accept uncritically what the same information sources and media said with regard to other fields. Nuclear engineers exasperated by the scares about radiation nevertheless believed that lakes formed in some of the most acidic rock on the continent had been denuded of fish (that had never lived there) by acid rain; climatologists who pointed out that nothing could be happening to the ozone layer since surface ultraviolet was not increasing signed petitions to ban DDT; biologists who knew that bird populations had thrived during the DDT years showed up to picket nuclear plants; and so it went on. Clearly, other factors could outweigh the objective criteria that are supposed to be capable of deciding a purely scientific question.

Browsing in a library one day, I came across a creationist book arguing that the fossil record showed the precise opposite of what evolutionary theory predicts. I had never had reason to be anything but a staunch supporter of Darwinism, since that was all I'd been exposed to, and everyone knew the creationists were strange anyway. But I checked the book out and took it home, thinking it would be good for a laugh. Now, I didn't buy their Scriptural account of how it all began, and I still don't. But contrary to the ridicule and derision that I'd been accustomed to hearing, to my own surprise I found the evidence that they presented for finding huge problems with the Darwinian theory to be solid and persuasive. So, such being my bent, I ordered more books from them out of curiosity to look a bit more deeply into what they have to say. Things got more interesting when I brought my findings up with various biologists whom I knew. While some would fly into a peculiar mix of apoplexy and fury at the mere mention of the subject—a distinctly unscientific reaction, it seemed—others would confide privately that they agreed with a lot of it; but things like pressures of the peer group, the politics of academia, and simple career considerations meant that they didn't talk about it. I was astonished. This was the late-twentieth-century West, not sixteenth-century Spain.

Shortly afterward, I met Peter Duesberg, one of the nation's leading molecular biologists, tipped by many to be in line for a Nobel Prize, suddenly professionally ostracized and defunded for openly challenging the mainstream dogma on AIDS. What was most disturbing about it after talking with him and his associates and reading their papers was that what they were saying made sense; the official party line didn't. Another person I got to know was the late Petr Beckmann, professor emeritus of electrical engineering, whose electrical interpretation of the phenomena conventionally explained by the Einstein Relativity Theory (ERT) is equally compatible with all the experimental results obtained to date, simpler in its assumptions, and more powerful predictively—but it is ignored by the physics community. I talked to an astrophysicist in NASA who believed that Halton Arp—excommunicated from American astronomy for presenting evidence contradicting the accepted interpretation of the cosmic redshifts that the Big Bang theory rests on—was "onto something." But he would never say so in public, nor sign his name to anything to that effect on paper. His job would be on the line, just as Arp's had been.

Whatever science might be as an ideal, scientists turn out to be as human as anyone else, and they can be as obstinate as anyone else when comfortable beliefs solidify into dogma. Scientists have emotions—often expressed passionately, despite the myths—and can be as ingenious as any senator at rationalizing when a reputation or a lifetime's work is perceived to be threatened. They value prestige and security no less than anyone else, which inevitably fosters convergences of interests with political agendas that control where the money and the jobs come from. And far from least, scientists are members of a social structure with its own system of accepted norms and rewards, commanding loyalties that at times can approach fanaticism, and with rejection and ostracism being the ultimate unthinkable.

This book is not concerned with cranks or simple die-hards, who are entitled to their foibles and come as part of life's pattern. Rather, it looks at instances of present-day orthodoxies tenaciously defending beliefs in the face of what would appear to be verified fact and plain logic, or doggedly closing eyes and minds to ideas whose time has surely come. In short, where scientific authority seems to be functioning more in the role of religion protecting doctrine and putting down heresy than championing the spirit of the free inquiry that science should be.

The factors bringing this about are various. Massive growth of government funding and the direction of science since World War II have produced symbiotic institutions which, like the medieval European Church, sell out to the political power structure as purveyors of received truth in return for protection, patronage, and prestige. Sometimes vested commercial interests call the tune. In areas where passions run high, ideology and prejudice find it easy to prevail over objectivity. Academic turf, like any other, is defended against usurpers and outside invasion. Some readily trade the anonymity and drudgery of the laboratory for visibility as celebrities in the public limelight. Peer pressure, professional image, and the simple reluctance to admit that one was wrong can produce the same effects at the collective level as they do on individuals.

I used to say sometimes in flippant moments that science was the only area of human activity in which it actually matters whether or not what one believes is actually true. Nowadays, I'm not so sure. It seems frequently to be the case that the cohesiveness that promotes survival is fostered just as effectively by shared belief systems within the social-political structures of science, whether those beliefs be true or not. What practical difference does it make to the daily routine and budget of the typical workaday scientist, after all, if the code that directs the formation and behavior of the self-assembling cat wrote itself out of random processes or was somehow inspired by a Cosmic Programmer, or if the universe really did dance out of the head of a pin? Scientific truth can apparently be an elusive thing when you try to pin it down, like the Irish fairies.

So today, I reserve the aphorism for engineering. You can fool yourself if you want, and you can fool as many as will follow for as long as you can get away with it. But you can't fool reality. If your design is wrong, your plane won't fly. Engineers don't have the time or the inclination for highfalutin' theories. In fact, over-elaborate theories that try to reach too far, I'm beginning to suspect, might be the biggest single menace affecting science. Maybe that's why I find that the protagonists of the later books that I've written, now that I look back at them and think about it, have tended to be engineers.



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