The Exquisite Balancing Act for Doing Science Right
May 25, 2015
Science journalist Gary Taubes delivered the keynote address at the 2015 Commencement Ceremony. In his address, Taubes spoke about, “the exquisite balancing act that has to be accomplished in order to do science right.”
The award-winning author, science journalist, and Science magazine correspondent is the only print journalist to have won three Science in Society Journalism awards, given by the National Association of Science Writers.
Below is an edited transcript of his address to the Schmid College class of 2015 graduates.
The purpose of addresses like this is to communicate some gem of wisdom I collected over the years that I could pass on from my generation to yours. But in most subjects, who knows if my experience will have any relevance to yours? So this is what I cannot talk about today: I can’t talk about finding love and happiness, raising a family, finding success, balancing work and play, friends and family, finding your passion. I certainly can’t tell you about how to find a fulfilling line of work, despite the fact that I believe I did.
I got to be an investigative science journalist and then co-found a non-profit that we hope will change the world, but I did so via a sequence of stumbles and fortuitous events that could never have been predicted when I was sitting where you are today. I studied physics in college because, in all honesty, my exceedingly intelligent older brother studied physics and I was competing with him. Perhaps not surprisingly I wasn’t particularly good at it. When I received a C- in quantum physics my junior year and my advisor suggested I find another field of interest, he received no argument from me.
Along these lines, after I had become a science journalist about a decade later, I was talking to some physicists at a conference when the subject turned to what we learned in college. I said my father had spent $100,000 putting me through college, and all I could remember is the left-hand rule – i.e., when a current goes through a wire in this direction then the magnetic field wraps around it in this direction. And one of the physicists said, “Gary, it’s the right-hand rule,” to which I responded, “Whatever you do, don’t tell my father.”
I got into science journalism because that was the only job offer I got after journalism school that allowed me to remain in New York City where my then girlfriend happened to live and work. I became an investigative science journalist because I went off to Geneva to do my first book about what I had been told by a soon-to-be-Nobel Laureate would be the greatest scientific breakthrough in physics in 50 years – all he had to do was turn on his atom smasher and get a little more data. Instead, I watched him and his team of 150 very bright collaborators come to the depressing realization that what they thought they had discovered did not actually exist.
My book became an exposé on the politics and sociology of high-energy physics, and I became obsessed with the question of how hard it is to do science right – to establish reliable knowledge about the universe – and how easy it is to screw up and get it wrong. Along the way I interviewed thousands of scientists – from the very best in the world and, equally interesting, albeit in a different way, to some of the very worst. In other words, if these latter guys were plumbers, you wouldn’t want them fixing your toilet.
I learned a lot of interesting lessons along the way and heard some good lines. My two favorites, said to me personally, and two that happened to resonate the most to my journalism, were both by Nobel Laureates. There was the director of the Fermi National Laboratory in Illinois, who told me that he liked to walk around the laboratory at night and talk to the graduate students, because they hadn’t learned to lie yet. By which he meant not that the older physicists were dishonest, but that they might be a little too willing to put the best possible spin on what they were doing; their funding and their reputations depended on it.
At the time I was learning that lesson, I was living at this laboratory in Geneva. I was hanging out like the proverbial fly on the wall with these 150 physicists in the experiment, and the 100 or so physicists in the competing experiment, and then the theorists at the lab, and the technicians who actually built the equipment, and, yes, the graduate students, too. And I was getting very different stories from all of these people. The higher up they were in the hierarchy of the laboratory, the more they were likely to adhere to some official party line and to discuss openly what we might call reality. The closer they were to actually having built the experimental device, the more likely they were to understand all the various ways their equipment could fool them, and so the more open they were to the possibility that their supposed discovery might be a figment of their dreams and aspirations — what they wanted to be true, more so than what really was.
This requirement that we know the difference between what we want to be true and what really is, is the concept I’m going to return to shortly. It’s arguably the fundamental goal of science. Ultimately, I think, it’s a prerequisite for a fulfilling life. It’s one thing I can talk about that might have some credibility, where I might claim to be an expert. It doesn’t mean I haven’t fooled myself, numerous times, but at least my work requires that I think about this issue and all it entails as much as anyone around. The awards I’ve won in journalism have invariably been about articles that examine this question of how easy it is to believe what we want to believe, rather than what is true. The not-for-profit I co-founded funds and facilitates research that directly targets this question in the field of nutrition and health.
Now my second favorite line came from a Nobel Laureate named Sam Ting, who shared his prize for the discovery of an elementary particle, the J/Psi, which did exist. What Sam gave me was the ranking system in science. He said: “To be first and right is good. To be first and wrong is not so good. And to be second and right is meaningless.”
What Sam meant is that science is about learning something new about the universe, something no one else has ever noticed – that’s the thrill — and that thrill is gone once somebody else beats you to it. (Although without that scientist who is second and right, we don’t know whether the first and right person was indeed actually right – hence, the concept of replication.)
I don’t know if Sam really believed this because the fact is he had to share his Nobel Prize, because he sat on his discovery for six months before he went public. He allowed another research team to catch up to his. And he did it because being first and wrong was not something he could abide. And that’s an admirable trait. But he said it, and it’s a good line.
So, this brings me to the exquisite balancing act that has to be accomplished in order to do science right. As you head off into the world equipped with the wonderful education you’ve now got under your belt (your gowns?), remembering far more (I hope) than the right-hand rule, this is the balancing act that you’re going to have to accomplish to have a satisfying life, a fulfilling life, a passionate life and, equally important, an honest one.
The one line I’ve quoted in three of my four books isn’t something that was said to me personally but comes from a commencement address given at Caltech in 1974 by the legendary Richard Feynman, another Nobel Laureate and all around fascinating character. Feyman said that the first principle of science is you must not fool yourself and you’re the easiest person to fool.
In fact, 400 years ago when a British statesman named Francis Bacon pioneered the scientific method, this is precisely what he had in mind. So Feynman wasn’t saying anything new. He had just distilled it down to its essence. Bacon argued that the human brain is wired in such a way that we are destined to fool ourselves – we see what we want to see; we believe what we want to believe and we pay far more attention to the evidence that supports our beliefs than the evidence that doesn’t. This is why we need some kind of methodology of thinking, of being skeptical, that tends to counteract this tendency – hence, the scientific method. Institutionalized skepticism.
The idea is we’re always going to try to fool ourselves – that’s how our brains are wired — but here’s a way of thinking that will help us minimize the tendency. Another great philosopher of Science, Robert Merton, in the 1960s, put it this way: he said that Aristotle was right when he said “all men by nature desire to know” but then he added, what makes scientists different is they “desire to know that what they know is really so.”
Now here’s the catch: In science, as in life, you have to have faith in yourself and your ideas. You have to make decisions about what you’ll pursue, what you’ll continue pursing despite times getting very tough, who you’ll do it with, who you’ll stay doing it with even after times get tough, where you’ll do it; why other people should do it with you and keep doing it with you through the tough times. You’ll make these decisions based on the assumption that what you believe is true really is. Without this belief we don’t do anything; it’s what drives us forward and allows us to act decisively. But if we fool ourselves, and we’re the easiest person to fool, we’ll make the wrong decisions – as individuals, as a society.
From this perspective, life becomes a tightrope walk in which you never actually see the rope. But it’s there. And, in all honesty, there’s almost invariably a net, too, so our missteps are rarely as damaging as we fear they’ll be while they’re happening. On this rope, we have to find the balance, time and again, between this need to think critically and skeptically about what we believe, and the need to have faith that what we’re doing and what we believe is right. Faith moves us forward; skeptical critical thinking keeps us balanced.
I can’t tell you how to do it. As the Wizard of Oz said to Dorothy, you’ll have to learn that for yourself. All too often, you learn how to do it only after you’ve fallen off the rope. And then you have to get back on. I can tell you, though, that it’s a good idea to keep this balancing act in mind throughout your life, and I wish you luck and tremendous success with the thrill of the walk and the journey to the other side.