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Last Updated: Friday, 28 April 2006, 17:23 GMT 18:23 UK
Believe it or not: The battle over certainty

A POINT OF VIEW
By Lisa Jardine

There is something attractive about absolute beliefs, but we cannot afford ourselves the luxury of waiting for evidence on some issues, says Lisa Jardine in the first of her weekly opinion columns.

Sometimes, if you're lucky as a historian, you find a bit of evidence which illuminates a big idea. That happened to me this week in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

WHO IS LISA JARDINE?
Born 1944, Lisa Jardine is a historian
She is professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London
She's also director of the AHRB Research Centre for Editing Lives and Letters

The thought uppermost in my mind was how odd it is that non-scientists think of science as being about certainties and absolute truth. Whereas scientists are actually quite tentative - they simply try to arrive at the best fit between the experimental findings so far and a general principle.

The manuscript I found was a ship's journal kept by a 17th Century English sea captain, who had offered to carry some state-of-the-art scientific equipment on a voyage to the west coast of Africa and back - two new pendulum clocks.

The job he took on was to test the clocks to see if they kept accurate time in spite of being tossed up and down and generally shaken about at sea. I'll come back to how he got on in a moment.

Science, as I say, is not doctrinaire. Strongly held religious beliefs, however, are.

This week John Mackay from Queensland Australia, a passionate advocate of Creationism, has been touring halls and chapels in the UK attacking Darwin's theory that the human race has evolved gradually from the apes over millions of years.

Mackay maintains that Genesis is literally true, that the earth is only a few thousand years old and that the exquisite organisation of nature is clear proof that God's hand lies behind all of creation. Mackay had hoped to debate the matter here in Britain with leading scientists. If evolution is "true", the Creationist challenges - step up and prove it.

Notorious rogue

There is something rather attractive about absolute beliefs. We all find them comforting: give up chocolate for Lent and you are taking a small step towards God's approval. Uncertainty is much more unsettling.

One of the reasons why we find it difficult to make up our minds about climate change and global warming is that the data is so complicated. Glaciers are melting, holes are detected in the ozone layer, emission of greenhouse gases is rising, yet we have just gone through an unusually cold winter and spring is unseasonably late arriving - it is hard to get alarmed.

Even a passionate advocate of the prospect of impending ecological disaster like the government's chief scientific advisor Sir David King, cannot go so far as to say: "It will be so, that is the absolute truth of the matter."

It is a basic requirement of scientific method that a tentative explanation has to be tested against observation of the natural world. And from the very beginning scientists have been suspicious whenever the data fits the hoped-for results too closely.

Clock
Experiments with time
Which brings me back to my clock-testing sea-captain, and the ship's journal I was reading this week in Cambridge. I was looking for documents relating to attempts by the 17th Century Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens to develop a pendulum clock which would enable mariners to find their longitude at sea (their precise east-west position on the globe).

In 1664, shortly after the first proper scientific research institute, the Royal Society, had been established in London its president, who was an admirer of Huygens's work, offered to organise a series of sea-trials to be conducted by the English navy, using two of his pioneering clocks.

Captain Robert Holmes, commander in charge of the Navy ship the Jersey, agreed to take the clocks along with him on a nine-month voyage down the west coast of Africa. He would keep the clocks wound and in working order, take regular measurements, make the necessary complex calculations and supply detailed documentation in support of his findings.

When he got back to London in 1665 Holmes presented his report to an expectant Royal Society. The clocks had performed spectacularly well. Indeed, he declared, they had actually saved the expedition from disaster.

Astonishing

On the return journey, Holmes had been obliged to sail several hundred nautical miles westwards in order to pick up a favourable wind. Having done so, the Jersey and the three ships accompanying her sailed several hundred more miles north-eastwards. At which point, the four captains found that water was running worryingly low on board.

Holmes's three fellow-captains produced three competing sets of calculations of their current position based on traditional reckoning, but all agreed they were dangerously far from any potential source of water.

Not so, declared Holmes. According to his calculations - based on the pendulum clocks - they were a mere 90 miles west of the island of Fuego, one of the Cape Verde islands. He persuaded the party to set their course due east whereupon, the very next day, around noon, they indeed made landfall on Fuego, exactly as predicted.

London was abuzz with excitement. The Fellows of the Royal Society were elated, and immediately rushed Holmes's account of how the pendulum clocks had saved the day into print. Orders began to be placed for the revolutionary new timekeepers.

A public understanding of science has never been more important

But the inventor himself, Christiaan Huygens was not so sure. And his reason for being more cautious than his London colleagues was precisely the fact that the clocks had proved so astonishingly accurate.

"I have to confess", he wrote to the Royal Society. "That I had not expected such a spectacular result from these clocks. I beg you to tell me if the said Captain seems a sincere man whom one can absolutely trust. For it must be said that I am amazed that the clocks were sufficiently accurate to allow him by their means to locate such a tiny island."

Well, Robert Holmes was not 'a sincere man'. In fact, he was a rather notorious rogue. History remembers him as the man whose thuggish and piratical behaviour towards the Dutch merchants along the Guinea coast in the 1660s directly caused the second Anglo-Dutch war.

Tampering

So the Royal Society asked an official from the Navy Board, Samuel Pepys - the same Pepys who wrote the diary - to check the evidence Holmes had provided against the day-by-day entries in his ship's journal. Well, that was the journal I went to look at in Cambridge this week.

Lo and behold, it turns out that Holmes had falsified his evidence. The pendulum clocks had proved no more accurate for calculating longitude than conventional methods. The ships had been well and truly lost, the mariners had been extremely lucky to make landfall on the island of Saint Vincent before their water entirely ran out.

Holmes thought that by tampering with his evidence he would please the scientists at the Royal Society. Instead, the too-precise nature of the match between his data and the results they wanted alerted them to the fact that his testimony was unreliable.

And Huygens was right to be sceptical. His pendulum clocks never did prove accurate enough at sea to solve the problem of finding longitude. A scrupulous scientist like Huygens would rather be disappointed, than accept dubious evidence to provide pat confirmation of a pet theory.

That continues to be true in all areas of scientific investigation today. Which is why no scientist will take up the creationist Mackay's challenge to "prove" the truth of Darwin's theory of evolution in a public debate. They know they cannot present a strongly held view based on a body of supporting evidence with the absolute certainty of a revealed truth.

The most today's Royal Society is prepared to say is that a belief that all species on earth have always existed in their present form, and that the earth is "not consistent with the evidence from geology, astronomy and physics". And that is probably not enough to satisfy ordinary thoughtful citizens without a scientific training.

Because most of us want more certainty, we're on the side of the 17th Century's ship's captain, believing the experiments ought to prove the scientific theory once and for all. Unfortunately, where arguments about the ecology are concerned, time is not on our side.

We cannot afford ourselves the luxury of waiting for evidence which clinches the theory. We are going to have to learn how to participate in debates which are not about certainties. We have to decide right now whether we should sacrifice our right to cut-price air travel in order to cut carbon emissions. A public understanding of science has never been more important.

Professor Lisa Jardine is the new contributor to BBC Radio Four's Point of View, a weekly talk on topical issues, broadcast at 2050BST on Fridays, 0850BST Sundays and available online via the BBC radio player or this page.


Send your comments, using the form below.

Bravo! Thank you for historian Lisa Jardine's clarity on the nature of scientific, testable, undogmatic belief. Happily, historians (John Gribben, Jenny Uglow, to name just two)are giving us readable, exciting accounts of how science develops, its struggles, triumphs and failures. Teachers of science struggle to find time for this story of the history of their subject. Curricula and timetables ought not to force teachers to falsify the nature of their subject by detaching it from its history.
Dan Godfrey, Wraysbury, Staines, Middlesex, U.K.

An excellent piece. One constructive criticism:
"... we find it difficult to make up our minds about climate change and global warming ... we have just gone through an unusually cold winter and spring is unseasonably late arriving - it is hard to get alarmed."
Surely unusual local climate patterns raise questions about "local" climate change, and hence, lead to further thought about "global" climate change? The fact that the most recent local anomaly is toward colder conditions, hints at the logic for moving away from the term, 'global warming'.
Dr A C Baker, Birmingham, UK

Lisa Jardine's 'Point of View' (28/04/06) was brilliant! This very important message could not have been worded more precisely and convincingly or better illustrated. (The anecdote of the Huygens clocks, of which I was not aware, was fascinating). Lisa Jardine rivals the persuasive clarity of Richard Dawkins. Thank you, Radio 4, for letting us hear these wise voices. (and even providing a transcript!). I am deeply impressed by the quality of your programming which manages to avoid the trend of dumbing down, instead continues to improve.
Theodor Oostindie, Tarland, Aberdeenshire, Scotland

If we think we know anything we are making a mistake. We cannot know, and the proof is simple:- All this "world" or the whole cosmos; everything within it, all we can perceive, feel, smell and hear, (everything we can appreciate and understand including our own five senses), either became or always existed, will always be or, at some time, will no longer be. We don't know. Having come to this unavoidable assessment we have five options; These are: 1) This "world" always was and always will be.
2) This "world" always was and will at some time no longer be.
3) This "world" became and will at some time no longer be.
4) This "world" became and will always be.
5) A mixture of all the others, (there is an infinite number).
There is no person on earth who can tell you which one is the case, we only choose one and choose to believe it. All we can say is that which we do choose to believe appeals to our five simple senses. What about "dark matter", what about "the eleven dimensions"? We actually know only nothing. Our five simple senses are simply not enough. Doubt is the only certainty. This is a question we should really come to terms with, we need to understand it to really grow up.
Tom McDonough, Hampton Hill Middx

Just heard the comments of Lisa Jardine on the radio and came herelooking for further reference with the view to taking a copy, as this is the best and clearest description I've heard of the scientists position on absolute certainty. Thanks
Max Lang, Northampton

What a brilliant article, and such a refresshing contrast to the almost incessant nonsense about the private lives or incompetence of our leading politicians, not to mention the 4th metacarpus of a particular foot.
John Mason, Swansea

Unfortunately some scientists are also not above rigging the results of their experiments. Also, Lisa Jardine made mention of the Lenten practice of fasting or doing without some small treat such as chocolate as a way of currying favour with God. Unfortunately we are unable by our own devices to gain favour with God, but we might gain some self-control. Some also fast on behalf of others.
Darel Stutters, Waterlooville Hants

I'm afraid that the Royal Society in saying that "a belief that all species on earth have always existed in their present form" ... "is not consistent with the evidence from geology, astronomy and physics" were attacking a strawman. Since I would expect these learned folk to know what creationists believe I suspect that they said this from a dishonest motive. Creationists do not believe that all species have remained unchanged but that the creatures God created have drawn on the variability built into their genomes by God to produce the variety we see today, both living and dead. However, you suggest that it is unfair of the creationist to demand of the evolutionist evidence that their hypothesis is correct? Why? We expect the biologist to present evidence that this organ has that function, of the astronomer that this moon rotates around that world why should not the evolutionist present evidence that animals evolve?
Martin Yirrell, Hemel Hempstead, UK

The excuse as to the reason for not debating with the creationist is disingenuous. All we hear is that creationists teach drivel, and yet no-one is prepared to topple his arguments in a public debate. You would have thought that there would be a murder of scientists flocking to peck his proposition and his person to bits. Well, it's intrigued me. I'm now going to search the interweb to find out more about what he has to say. A few seconds after the programme there was a trail for the food programme in which I heard, '... raw diet. We'll see what the invention of cooking had on human evolution'. You see every day, in every which way, we are given new information based on the assumption of evolution (which I take to mean the transformation of one type of thing to another type of thing by means of accidental happenings such that a fish could eventually turn into a scientist or a bicycle). In the name of balance and integrity and fair play and rigour I invite the BBC to use my licence money to invite the creationist to talk next week. And when it doesn't, to air this view and give a response to this view. Many thanks for reading the above.
John Collins, Liverpool, England

I heard this 10-minute slot on the radio twice, and was so impressed with its moral that I searched, and found, the text on the internet and got a printout. I think it shows how necessary patience and scepticism are to any advance in knowledge. This goes against the grain of most humans, certainly mine. The scientific method is a remarkable thing.
John Palmer, Broadstone, Dorset

Despite being lost,Holmes predicted accurately the direction and time that it would take to reach the island of St.Vincent. How did he do this?
H.Hook, Tunbridge Wells, England

Iis it possible to get/download a copy of the most recent 'a point of view', it would be excellent for the new GCSE science course.
jim garrett, baldock

It's a good article, and we desperately need journalism like this at the moment. One minor point: "Darwin's theory that the human race has evolved gradually from the apes over millions of years" is not true. We evolved from a common ancestor with the apes. It's important because it's something Creationists say in error rather a lot.
Neal Freeman, Haywards Heath

The talk by Lisa Jardine (about the scientific culture and method) was one of the best I have ever heard on any subject---radio at its best. I wonder whether anybody could keep up that standard week in and week out. Why not make her an offer she couldn't refuse to try? Tom Smith
t.b.smith, Bedford

I was lucky to catch this morning's "A Point of View" (Sunday, 30 April) which was so well written and delivered that I remembered at the far end of the day to look up the listings to find out more about Lisa Jardine.
David Lines, Esher, UK

This simple polarity of absolute belief and evidential science sadly ignores vast areas of evidence. First, Huygens, the hero here of sceptical careful consideration of evidence, was a Christian, like Boyle, Ray, Grew, Newton, and many of the other leading figures of the 17th century scientific revolution. They saw their faith as integral to their experimental science and the perceived polarity obviously did not operate with them. Second, Lisa Jardine on a sample of one, John Mackay, constructs a model of absolute religious belief,ignoring the vast number of Christians who operate with tested beliefs, levels of certainty and a very different understanding of creation from John Mackay's. Why take a minority view, from another country, as typifying religious beliefs about creation? Third, most scientists, and this included Huygens, have worldviews and paradigms as part of their theoretical construction. They may be Christian, materialist or whatever, but they are part of science, and it would be good if Lisa could make hers explicit, so that her point of view is transparently presented.
alan storkey, cambridge

If what Lisa Jardine says is true "Which is why no scientist will take up the creationist Mackay's challenge to "prove" the truth of Darwin's theory of evolution in a public debate. They know they cannot present a strongly held view based on a body of supporting evidence with the absolute certainty of a revealed truth." - then why oh why is evolution and the billions of years THEORY continuely and consistently presented as FACT in the media? the creationists i know (including myself) will say there is one body of evidence interpreted in two (possibly more) different ways and that evolution as well as creation is a belief system precisely because it can NOT be proven beyond doubt, this is all creationists want - a fair hearing and a stop to all the promotion of evolution and old earth as FACT when it is only a theory.
julie inan, bridlington, yorkshire, uk

I understood that technically "apes" are our modern cousins and the term shouldn't be applied to our common ancestors, but I may be mistaken. It is more difficult and more clumsy to say "the human race has evolved gradually from the same ancestors as modern apes". A good reason for serious scientists not to debate with creationists is that the creationists don't deserve the privilege.
Robert Carnegie, Blantyre, Scotland

Excellemt. I teach a class in the philosophy of science and I'm going to play this to my students! thanks very much Any chance of being able to download "A Point Of View"?
Mike Ford , Ste Foy les Lyon France

Professor Jardine - My thanks for a very well expressed point of view drawing an analogy between the incident of Holmes and the pendulum clocks and the Origins debate going on at this moment in the UK. May I say it is precisiely for the reasons that you have outlined that an increasing number of UK academics are very perturbed by the false certainties that are being asserted by our more daring colleagues such as Professors Steve Jones and Richard Dawkins. These gentlemen are making assertions that evolution (by that I mean the view that molecules have become men over 15 - 20 billion years) is a certainty, and are not willing to have the whole proposal of evolution critically tested by scientific debate within both University and secondary schools in our land. Might I suggest that is the religious nature of their assertions which is doing the greatest damage to a critical debate in our land today. Furthermore a lack of clarity in understanding the criticisms of evolution is b ringing great confusion. In its haste to make a statement on the current debate recently, the Royal Society asserted that a belief that all species on earth have always existed in their present form, ....is "not consistent with the evidence from geology, astronomy and physics". The one who wrote this had not understood the real debate. No creationist in academia has a belief in fixity of species, indeed no serious minded scientist who believes in Creation has ever denied natural selection and change within kinds. The statement by the Royal Society has muddied the waters and just as in your illustration the cautionary word of Huygens won the day over the triumphalism of Holmes, might I suggest that the cautions of those critical of the notion that natural selection has any creative power should be listened to? I fear that good careful experimental science is at a watershed today and that we are being led by those with a religious fervour who are making wild assertions without any proof.
Professor A.C. McIntosh, LEEDS

Neither creationists or scientists can currently prove their "theories", however, one day science will. Mr Mackay should realise that he cannot prove his creationist theory by merely quoting from the bible. He needs to learn that things are not instantly fact because someone wrote then down a long time ago.
Gerry, Montrose

This article is total gobbledygook - there are several clear errors in the written text - and the logic is pretty woolly to say the least. The case against Creationism is much clearer than it makes out.
dave l, Glasgow

A wonderful argument that I shall have to put into use next time I'm faced with that oft-used rebuttal from the indoctrinated : "Science is just another form of faith".
Tom, London

Interesting article. However, it makes me feel that those who believe in Creationism should also be asked "to prove it". The universe is too complex for current science to understand it.
Neil Small, Scotland

Please don't lump all believers in the same pot as the creationist lunatic fringe! Many of us are trying to apply the scientific method to our beliefs and faith as well - often with the same confusing, disturbing and slightly chaotic results - but still come back to the answer that best fits all the evidence.
Jeremy Fagan, Kirkby, Merseyside

I think its great that Prof. Lisa encourages people to debate such important matters. In the case of Christianity, CS Lewis said: "Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important." And that is the same with most faiths, including faith in science and evolution. Life is short and each of us must spend time looking for this "absolute truth". There must only be one!
Woody Henden, Southampton, UK

This is very, very good. Any chance of a podcast?
Mike Illsley, London

What a well-argued piece of scientific/historical journalism. Far too many people believe, erroneously, that science is about 'facts and figures' and absolute truth, but science is not about things that we know for certain to be true, it's about things which, under carefully controlled experiemental conditions, seem to be consistent. Science constructs a model of the universe but that model is not absolute - it is constantly refined, from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein to Hawking.
MJ Simpson, Leicester, UK

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