Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Nature of Science

Tony Rothman has criticized physics teaching for not emphasizing the approximate character of physical theory (and science in general and knowledge of all sorts). (The Man Behind the Curtain, American Scientist, vol. 99, pg 186, May-June 2011)
In my general education classes I begin with a handout that contains the quote from Einstein that Rothman cites: "When mathematical propositions refer to reality they are not certain; when they are certain, they do not refer to reality" (1921) I also quote Stephen Jay Gould  "Science does not deal in certainty, so 'fact' can only mean a proposition affirmed to such a high degree that it would be perverse to withhold one's provisional assent." (Time magazine, 23 Aug. 1999) and Bertrand Russell  "All knowledge is in some degree doubtful, and we cannot say what degree of doubtfulness makes it cease to be knowledge, any more than we can say how much loss of hair makes a man bald." (Human Knowledge, Simon and Schuster, 1948,  pg 497)
For many years I have been giving this handout.  Throughout my course I then try to point out as many of the assumptions and approximations as I can. I hope other teachers will follow suit.

No comments:

Post a Comment