Monday, 24 February 2014

The Limits of Science - Peter Medawar

Sienz ciens cience siens syence syense syence scyence scyens sciens  scienc scians – These are homophones for science in the Oxford English dictionary, according to  Peter Medawar in his book, 
“The Limits of Science”, Oxford University Press, 1985.

Science, he opines, is not more knowledge; but organized knowledge, hard won. It is not merely inductive – in fact, it is rarely inductive – often deductive, sometimes accidental, requires exploration and imagination. There is no such thing as   “scientific inference.”

Medawar emphasizes two major aspects of science as we know and live it today – unintelligibility and solubility.

Unintelligibility The ideas of science are very easy to grasp, but its methods can be difficult to grasp. For example, “the mass of the earth” is easy to understand, but the science of how to calculate it may be very hard.

This may explain why, according to CP Snow, around the the 1930s there evolved Two Cultures – that intellectual life in Western society was splitting into two polar groups; literary intellectuals and scientists. Snow quotes the mathematician GH Hardy: “Have you noticed how the word intellectual is used nowadays?”; because, it no longer seemed to include scientists. I suspect this is because science has become more and more unintelligible to literary types or even literate people – artists, writers, lawyers, journalists, economists.

Solubility Bismarck opined, “Politics is the art of the possible.” Medawar proposes : “Scientific Research is the art of the soluble.” He explains with an example of organ transplantation – how it was viewed as a problem, the understanding of antigens and antibodies, organ rejection as a problem, and research to overcome it. Perhaps Edison’s light bulb may be a better understood example.

I came upon this book at Connemara Library, in Egmore, on Feb 5, 2010. This blog is the summary of the salient points that struck me at that time. My father Rangarathnam, used to say of some things, “It defies definition, but admits description.” Medawar’s book does something of that sort. In a way, it is a refutation of narrow descriptions of science, attempting to define it. Medawar goes on to discuss the interaction of Science with Politics, Culture, and as a ticket to social and economic progress for individuals. I will blog about this later.

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