Thursday, December 18, 2014

Mystery Quote on the Essence of Science

Science abandons ideas when they go wrong. Someone famous said this. It's true and it's happening right now, as cancer screening undergoes a big paradigm shift.

Mystery Quote on the Essence of Science

It’s not all that easy to encapsulate the essence of science in a sound bite. Physicist Richard Feynman appears to do it in the little clip of a lecture attached to this post. The late great Feynman describes science as a comparison between ideas and observations or experiments. If your idea doesn’t agree with experiment, you’re wrong.

But that doesn’t explain what makes a scientifically valid observation or experiment, or how we can be sure we’re properly interpreting what we observe. Feynman expands on all this in the rest of the lecture. I’m not sure his aim was to define science in a sound bite. His attention-getting witticisms and wry observations punctuate his lectures in a way that keeps the students riveted. The verbal spice is best enjoyed and understood as part of the whole lecture.

Here’s another famous person’s nutshell account of science. I clipped this quote from biologist Jerry Coyne’s blog Why Evolution is True:  

The essence of science is that it is always willing to abandon a given idea, however fundamental it may seem to be, for a better one; the essence of theology is that it holds its truths to be eternal and immutable.

Anyone want to venture a guess who said this? (Answer revealed tomorrow)

The quote makes the perfect introduction to this story, which ran on the front page of the Inquirer today. It’s about the way the medical community is starting to abandon the seemingly fundamental idea that PSA screening for prostate cancer does more good than harm. Studies are revealing that it’s more likely to be the other way around. One wonderful element was an interview with the scientist who discovered PSA. Surprise: He’s one of the biggest opponents of the widespread use of PSA screening. This story is essential reading for everyone who has a prostate or knows someone who does.

About this blog
Faye Flam - writer
In pursuit of her stories, writer Faye Flam has weathered storms in Greenland, gotten frost nip at the South Pole, and floated weightless aboard NASA’s zero-g plane. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology and started her writing career with the Economist. She later took on the particle physics and cosmology beat at Science Magazine before coming to the Inquirer in 1995. Her previous science column, “Carnal Knowledge,” ran from 2005 to 2008. Her new column and blog, Planet of the Apes, explores the topic of evolution and runs here and in the Inquirer’s health section each Monday. Email Faye at Reach Planet of the at

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