I have just solved a problem that needed to be finished this week to ensure I am ready to analyse the first p-p collision data from the LHC in a few weeks. The schedule is pretty tight now and everyone is busy! Throughout my PhD the most common and satisfying activity is working through a complicated problem, trying to come to an understanding, something correct. This week, during shifts and working through my analysis, I realised something about myself. My problem-solving, analytical ability (one of my biggest strengths) is aided greatly by my tendency to doubt. The solution to today’s problem appeared simple on the surface, but I thought of many ways in which it may not still work. In the end, the simple method survived, and I am much more confident about it.
It occurred to me then that people do not speak highly enough of doubt. Belief in something is seen as admirable, and scepticism has fairly negative connotations. Having been brought up a Catholic, I am familiar with the idea that being a “doubting Thomas” is a bad thing (“Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”, and so on). In a non-religious context, being a “skeptic” conjours up the image of a kind of undesirable personality flaw. However, I completely disagree with that picture. If you decide to question every belief you have, those ideas that survive are worth so much more for it.
As a side note, I came across, and was utterly disgusted by, a “Debate” article on the Daily Mail’s Mail Online recently, titled “Yes, scientists do much good. But a country run by these arrogant gods of certainty would truly be hell on earth” . I advise anyone with a brain not to read it, and I do not believe the author speaks on behalf of anybody sensible. However, it did highlight a perception that I think some people do have of scientists – certain. Arrogant. Correct. The ones with all the knowledge, the facts.
This is interesting because the philosophy of science is to converge theories towards what is true. This makes scientists look arrogant because what they believe is as close to the truth as they can possibly get. However, scientists would not have come this close to the truth without chipping away at current understanding with observation – without the incredible power of scepticism. Being willing to throw out what you have no matter how nicely it fitted before you started questioning it. Historically, entire ways of thinking about the world were turned on their head because of this. This is one of many things that makes me proud to be human.
a very intelligent child (things go downhill as you age, don’t they?), in part because I was a sponge for knowledge, but also because I kept asking questions until I got an answer that was satisfactory (I still do this. I am ruthlessly demanding in that respect. Very annoying, as you might imagine!) However, I owe everything I am today (including my lack of arrogance) to the times when, as a know-all, smart-Alec child, I was proven wrong. The more I experienced in life, the more I realised that just because an answer is satisfactory now doesn’t mean it is true, and at some point experience may cause me to think differently. Now, when I look at a problem, I don’t just think of a possible solution. I also try to think of all the ways I might be able to prove it wrong. What’s left is gold. That’s what science is all about.
I hope one day in the future to teach physics to kids, not with the intention of turning them all into future research scientists neccessarily, but giving them strong problem solving skills and critical minds to arm them against a world of scams, confusion and misinformation. Question the world, kids. Keep your childlike curiosity and wonder, examine and unravel the mysteries of the world’s magic. Keep searching for an answer that can’t be thrown away. Be a “doubting Thomas”.