Archive for November 13th, 2007

Don’t that common sense make no sense no more?

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007

Today I received an email from a colleague which included, down in the signature line, a quote supposedly by Thomas H. Huxley, “Science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.”

I’ve been mulling over that quote on and off all day, and I couldn’t quite decide whether I agree with it or not. I place a high value on the kind of common sense that my mother had, but that old song by folkie singer-songwriter John Prine kept running through my brain

They got mesmerized
By lullabies
And limbo danced
In pairs
Please lock that door
It don’t make much sense
That common sense
Don’t make no sense
No more

Moving on from folk songs, I ran a Google search on the Huxley quote, and found an interesting opinion column in the New York Times, “In Defense of Common Sense“, by John Horgan. He mentions that Huxley made that statement in an era before Einstein, about 100 years ago, proposed a couple of theories that seem to defy common sense …

… But quantum mechanics and relativity shattered our common-sense notions about how the world works. The theories ask us to believe that an electron can exist in more than one place at the same time, and that space and time – the I-beams of reality – are not rigid but rubbery. Impossible! And yet these sense-defying propositions have withstood a century’s worth of painstaking experimental tests.

As a result, many scientists came to see common sense as an impediment to progress not only in physics but also in other fields. “What, after all, have we to show for … common sense,” the behaviorist B. F. Skinner asked, “or the insights gained through personal experience?” Elevating this outlook to the status of dogma, the British biologist Lewis Wolpert declared in his influential 1992 book “The Unnatural Nature of Science,” “I would almost contend that if something fits in with common sense it almost certainly isn’t science.” Dr. Wolpert’s view is widely shared. When I invoke common sense to defend or – more often – criticize a theory, scientists invariably roll their eyes.

The leading candidate for a unified theory (explaining quantum mechanics and general relativity) holds that reality stems from tiny strings, or loops, or membranes, or something wriggling in a hyperspace consisting of 10, or 16 or 1,000 dimensions (the number depends on the variant of the theory, or the day of the week, or the theorist’s ZIP code). A related set of “quantum gravity” theories postulates the existence of parallel universes – some perhaps mutant versions of our own, like “Bizarro world” in the old Superman comics – existing beyond the borders of our little cosmos. “Infinite Earths in Parallel Universes Really Exist,” the normally sober Scientific American once hyperventilated on its cover.

For the full article click here.

The author arrives at the conclusion that, “ultimately, scientific truth must be established on empirical grounds.”

Common sense seems to tell me that his conclusion is true.