Falling for Science:Asking the big questions by Bernard Beckett
(2007), 320 pp Pub. Longacre Press
Review by Laurie Chisholm
Bernard Beckett is a New Zealand high school teacher who somehow manages to find time to write young adult fiction books as well. For this, his first non-fiction book, it helped that he was awarded a Royal Society fellowship, which gave him a year off teaching.
The title is a deliberate double entendre. You can fall for science in the sense of falling in love with it but also in the sense of falling for it, being taken in and deceived by it. Beckett approaches his subject matter as a non-specialist, a non-academic who wants to explore the fundamental truth about things. In the first part, there is a lot of discussion of classical philosophers, which did not hold my attention as well as the second part, which deals with modern themes, including evolutionary biology and brain science. Generally, I liked his down-to-earth but thoughtful style and appreciated his clever use of analogies to make his points.
Proper science involves developing a model of reality and then making predictions to test the model. A classic example is Einstein’s theory of relativity, which predicted that the strong gravity around stars would bend light. This unexpected prediction proved to be true. By contrast, lots of what masquerades as science is better described as ‘story,’ narratives that may sound plausible and often claim scientific authority, but have no testable predictive power. Evolutionary biology has a lot of this, for example the theory that men are less likely to ask for directions because in our evolutionary past, this would have signaled to the other tribe that the person was vulnerable and suitable for tonight’s dinner.
Chapter 7 is of particular interest because there Beckett comes closest to the theme of this year’s Conference, reflecting on the philosophers’ debates on consciousness, particularly their thought experiments with ‘the Chinese room’ and with ‘zombies.’
Beckett effectively deflates overblown claims for science and his conclusion is that science cannot give us all of truth and that we need a combination of science and story.
“We can see ourselves simultaneously as forces, chemical reactions, living entities, cultural constructs, ideas. None of these aspects of our existence is more real or truer than any other. At some point we have to let the science go and simply tell ourselves stories, for it is from stories alone that we derive meaning, and without meaning, we cease to exist as individuals, we collapse into dots [a reference to an earlier analogy of someone who examines TV ‘scientifically,’ and can see very small coloured dots but not TV programmes]. When I wish to make a judgement regarding beauty and value, I must turn to my personal stories. When I wish to make a moral choice in the world, science is of no use to me. Again, the stories I tell myself will cuide me.” (p227)