One of my New Year’s resolutions was to read more books and fewer papers – books often push authors deeper, forcing them to identify and develop their underlying assumptions and ideas, whereas papers (whether single or in edited volumes pretending to be books) are often a rehash of their existing thinking, garnished with a dollop of new data. First up was William Byers, The Blind Spot: Science and the Crisis of Uncertainty, (Princeton, 2011).
I think this book is important, but appropriately, given the title, I’m not certain. It’s pretty deep, conceptual and full of subtle argument, and trying to summarize it on a blog is always likely to reduce it to a bunch of platitudes. It’s also full of maths, because the author is a maths and stats prof at Concordia University in Montreal, so lots of red meat for any mathematicians out there, but I won’t dwell on that out of compassion for the numerically challenged….
For Byers, the overarching theme of the ‘new science’ – which seems to mean anything since Einstein – is ‘the emergence of limits’ – limits to reason, deductive systems, certainty, objectivity, in short, limits to what we can know. This is in part because the nature of science has changed from ‘being to becoming’; from structure to process – e.g. evolution, complexity theory etc.
At the heart of this evolution is ambiguity – multiple equally valid ways of understanding a particular phenomenon, epitomised by wave-particle duality in subatomic physics. But ambiguity is painful because ‘our culture remains in a ‘classical’ state, yet the frontiers of science have moved on.’ Even in scientists ambiguity induces a ‘state of vertigo’ and many opt instead for the lure, however illusory, of scientific certainty.
In contrast, Byers thinks that creativity in science and elsewhere lies in trying to live with ambiguity. ‘The whole book is about that ungraspable dynamism that generates the scientific world.’ He cites no less an authority than Leonard Cohen: ‘There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’
Although the book celebrates uncertainty, it acknowledges that ‘the islands of relative certainty science has carved out are of immense importance and the scientific method itself is one of humankind’s prime hopes for the future’. But it contrasts the science of certainty with the ‘science of wonder’ (great quotes from Einstein on the ‘cosmic religious feeling… that is the strongest and noblest reason for scientific research.’)
In Byers’ view ‘It is the science of certainty that is engaged in a battle to the death with the religion of certainty. The science of wonder is perfectly compatible with the religion of wonder, for ultimately they are the same thing.’
The book builds to an increasingly spiritual conclusion, captured in TS Eliot’s revelatory poem, Burnt Norton
‘At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.’
The job of a thinker is to endure the tensions, frustrations and vertigo in order to gain the insights that come from trying to experience the ‘still point’.
The book’s only real disappointment is its rather weak conclusion, in which he fails to connect this thinking with the challenges faced by society in 21stC (despite the blurb’s claim that this is its intention – I suspect interfering editors looking for a more popular hook). He asserts (but doesn’t try to prove) that it is the retreat from ambiguity that is responsible for some (largely unspecified) modern malaise, including global warming and the ‘dream of technology as total control’ and embracing it that will solve the problem (s).
Anyway, I thought it was interesting, perhaps because I once studied physics, but what’s all this got to do with development? Well, science is seen as the aspirational goal of a lot of development thinking – solving problems, identifying cause and effect – along with all those subjects that call themselves ‘social sciences’. So understanding what is really going on in the activity known as ‘science’ may help us avoid mistakes built on a crude or simplistic picture of what scientists do. Byers (above) quotes Warren Buffett’s wonderful ‘All I can say is, beware of geeks bearing formulas’.
But since reading it , I’ve mainly been thinking about the book almost as a highbrow self-help text. As a development generalist, a lot of the time I’m linking – feeding in examples and insights from other bits of the development world, challenging what people are doing or thinking on a particular issue. Often, I’m not at all certain of where I’m going – the absolute opposite of a specialist endlessly laying down best practice on the same X or Y. The lesson I take from Byers is that being uncertain may be uncomfortable, but it can also be creative, so don’t immediately head for the nearest intellectual comfort zone – keep skating on the thin ice and something will turn up. Take comfort in the discomfort.
You can hear Byers talks about the book here.