The unnatural nature of science

Professor Lewis Wolpert at home North London. February 2011.I recently read this book by the developmental biologist, Lewis Wolpert. It was originally published in 1992. At its core, the intent of the book was to explain why common people, the public, don’t ‘get’ science.

This is no review of the book. I only intend to bring to fore the ‘unnaturalness’ of the nature of science, as Wolpert put it. Consider a ball rolling down an incline onto a flat plane. It will roll a distance and stop. If the plane was absolutely smooth, with there being no friction, the ball would keep rolling for ever. But note that we haven’t had the opportunity to experience such frictionless surfaces in our day to day life. Thus our common sense, the set of thumb rules we have acquired quite unbeknown to self based on repeated experience with the reality known to us, finds it counterintuitive what Galileo put forth, and later Newton captured in his First law of motion, that uniform motion is the natural state of objects, aka, that ball would keep rolling.

This is the crux of the argument. Scientific explanations are essentially bound to invoke concepts from outside our daily dealings, and thus are fated to be counterintuitive, even absurd. This underlies the reluctance of the general populace to accept science. Stretching this to its logical extreme, Wolpert even argues that if something is explainable with commonsensical notions, then such explanations are not scientific; it’s not science. But to appreciate this, one would need to get into what he means by ‘science’, and, for that he has written that book. Hasn’t he!


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