I want to tell you about a debate I had last week. One that I lost.
As part of the new year 10 Physics course we have to teach the topic of gears. What do I know about gears exactly? Well, until last week I didn't even realise they came in different sizes. I don’t even know how to ride a bike. Technically I learned when I was eight but I’ve tried to do it since and failed every time. I know this is supposed to be impossible – to forget how to ride a bike - but I’m a special case of spatial incompetence. The old adage “it’s just like riding a bike” is one I only understand in theory.
But I digress.
In preparation for teaching this new topic I was trying to learn about gears, how they operated, what the different types were etc. and I came across a fiendish online puzzle showing a series of intersecting gear wheels and screws. The question was whether it would turn or not. I was pretty confident it would, one of the other teachers in the room was confident it wouldn’t. And thus the debate began. Here's the puzzle:
The movie adaptation of this thrilling battle of minds will be hitting cinema screens in 2018 with Kevin Spacey playing me and Daniel Day-Lewis playing the other teacher. Michael Bay is interested in directing.
Sure, a debate about interlocking gears is probably not the most exciting blog I’ve ever written, but these debates always seem thrilling when you’re in the middle of them don't they?
I was confident the system would work and he was confident it wouldn’t. They key thing is that we were both Scientists so only one thing mattered: what does the evidence say?
When two Scientists disagree it’s not about opinion or who is the “authority”. For example, he was a Biology teacher and this was definitely a Physics question. I could have been a jackass about it and assumed I was correct "because I'm the Physics teacher", but that would be a rookie error. There is no such thing as authority in Science – only evidence.
I’ve talked before about Hugh Longuett-Higgins; the 19 year old who solved the structure of diborane as a homework task. I love that story because it reminds me that Science is willing to accept an idea from anyone, even an unheard of teenager, if their hypothesis matches the evidence. Science isn't interested in prestige and it certainly carries no weight in a debate.
Even referring to a disagreement in Science as a “debate” isn’t appropriate. A debate implies two opposing sides trying to convince each other they've got it wrong and in Science we try avoid this kind of thing. The term for a Scientific disagreement is a “dialectic” - where two sides try and find the truth together, both accepting the possibility they could be wrong. I find it yields results far more often.
So we began discussing the problem and fairly early on I said something along the lines of “I acknowledge what you’re saying but I’m not convinced by it.” The other teacher responded by saying “well, let’s see if the evidence will convince you.” In the movie this exchange will be delivered during a gun-battle in space.
And this is the crucial thing: any Scientific conflict can be resolved by testing a claim and seeing where the evidence lies. Rather than saying “I just think you’re wrong” or “shut up and get out of my face”, Scientists know it’s unwise to reject someone’s hypothesis because we don’t like it. Instead, we test their claim and see if it holds up.
To get the solution, we began discussing the problem, sketching it from different angles and seeing what would happen. At one point he even created a makeshift model out of kitchen-paper and board-pen to help me visualise the rotations involved (seriously, this movie’s going to be a hit). I have to be honest, by this point everyone else had left the room – but we’re both geeks so we can’t let these things go.
Eventually, he began quantifying his argument using a few simple bits of math and the light began to dawn in my head. My interpretation was completely wrong because I was failing to visualise some pretty basic gear-laws. It took about twenty minutes for him to get me there but once I realised my mistake it took about five seconds for the Eureka moment to occur. And he was completely right. The above gear system will not work.
I didn’t feel bad once I realised how wrong I was however and he didn’t gloat, because in Science we understand (or at least try to) that whoever is right or wrong is largely irrelevant. All that matters is finding the truth.
And here’s the moral of the story...by realising I was wrong I learned something about gear relationships. Also, you probably don't want me fixing your car. Ultimately, I'm glad I got it wrong because I would have carried on blissfully incorrect otherwise. What I’m saying is that in Science you never really “lose”, you just learn.
That sounds like I’m trying to protect my ego and avoid admitting failure but I’m really not, I’ll be as blunt as possible: I got it totally wrong and failed to solve a problem in my own subject! I’m fine admitting that. But in making my mistake, I learned something I had overlooked and that can only be a good thing.
As Scientists we have a duty to follow evidence wherever it leads, even if that means admitting we backed the wrong horse. This can be difficult. We’re human and we like to think we’re clever. Indeed, I’m guilty of being stubborn and digging my heels in, but being a Scientist means trying to hold yourself to a higher standard. Admitting when you’re wrong is just a form of self-improvement.
To finish, here’s a wonderful story told by Richard Dawkins in chapter 2 of Unweaving the Rainbow:
One of the formative experiences of my undergraduate years occurred when a visiting lecturer from America presented evidence that conclusively disproved the pet theory of a deeply respected elder statesman of our zoology department, the theory that we had all been brought up on. At the end of the lecture, the old man rose, strode to the front of the hall, shook the American warmly by the hand and declared in ringing emotional tones ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’
If that isn't a description of Scientific integrity I don't know what is. Now I'm going to go and learn how to ride a bike.
The puzzle: cgtrader
Epic battle: acharif
I love science, let me tell you why.