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Modern science has a whole lot going for it that Ancient Greek or Chinese science did not: advanced technologies for observation and measurement, fast and efﬁcient communication, and well-funded and dedicated institutions for research. It also has, many thinkers have supposed, a superior (if not always ﬂawlessly implemented) ideology, manifested in a concern for objectivity, openness to criticism, and a preference for regimented techniques for discovery, such as randomised, controlled experimentation. I want to add one more item to that list, the innovation that made modern science truly scientiﬁc: a certain, highly strategic irrationality.
‘Experiment is the sole judge of scientiﬁc “truth”,’ declared the physicist Richard Feynman in 1963. ‘All I’m concerned with is that the theory should predict the results of measurements,’ said Stephen Hawking in 1994. And dipping back a little further in time, we ﬁnd the 19th-century polymath John Herschel expressing the same thought: ‘To experience we refer, as the only ground of all physical enquiry.’ These are not just personal opinions or propaganda; the principle that only empirical evidence carries weight in scientiﬁc argument is widely enforced across the scientiﬁc disciplines by scholarly journals, the principal organs of scientiﬁc communication. Indeed, …
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