The scientific method is not absolute. Every good scientist should be aware of that. However, for scientists, science and the scientific method have proven to be the most effective ways of moving towards a more objective view on the universe around us. Barrie Condon is such a scientist. He is a trained physicist. He held an Honorary Professorship with the University of Glasgow and is the author of over 80 papers published in peer reviewed journals.
Nevertheless, he decided to turn his back on his scientific background and to come out as a ‘heretic’. In his book Science for Heretics he sets out to undermine out current understanding of physics, mathematics, and basically all of science, with moderate success, to put it mildly. The book is one big mess, in which one wild claim follows the next so quickly that the reader hardly has the chance to come to grips with what has just been stated before the next claim hits them like a freight train. Apparently, there is a causal link between arithmetic, the ability to count, and the horrendous mass killings committed in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. If it actually exists, then somebody please explain it to me because I cannot see it.
“Some of the main problems Condon has with science seems to have their origins in a dislike for abstractions and approximations”
Another one is that mathematics does not work because one plus one never equals two. This seemingly follows from the fact that two things are never ever exactly identical. Not even atoms. Or at least not to our knowledge since we cannot look at every atom individually. I will come back to this point later. Here the author refers to Nietzsche in what appears to be a classic example of an out-of-context quotation. He speaks about the concept of “zero” as if it were some kind of spectre haunting human culture. The only thing worse than zero is infinity, and of course, Fourier transforms. Be afraid of Fourier transforms. Very afraid.
Some of the main problems Condon has with science seems to have their origins in a dislike for abstractions and approximations. Even if no two things are ever the same, I can still imagine two things to be identical. There is no problem with that. This is an abstraction. When I say there are two cups on the table in front of me then I do not mean two in every way identical cups but two things that are similar enough in their “cupness” to be classified as identical.
Furthermore, approximations are ubiquitous in science. Every model in physics involves some sort of approximations and every good physicist should keep them in the back of their head when deriving new theories. Coming to the problem that we are not able to probe every atom individually: This is a well known philosophical problem called the Induction Problem. Karl Popper has circumnavigated this problem by saying that science can only ever falsify a theory but never verify it. Good theories have to be falsifiable.
“Condon is clearly not an expert in the philosophy of science”
Although Condon has experience with the practicalities of science and knows how the scientific method is applied, he clearly is not an expert in the philosophy of science. He is so keen on stepping back from science and trying to figure out what science is actually doing, that he completely misses what science is actually doing. In an attempt to overthrow all of science as swiftly and long lastingly as possible, he entirely falls short of being critical about his own ideas. Perhaps the author should be more heretical in relation to his own theories, or the lack thereof. The book does not convey the picture of a critical inquiry of the scientific method, but rather that of a blind and hysterical tirade against anything and anybody that aims to make a logical statement about the universe.
Nevertheless, as I like to get something positive out of every book I read, here are some of the things I took away from reading this book: it did make me think about certain issues regarding how science it conducted. It also motivated me to read up on some of the philosophical issues mentioned above, such as the Induction Problem. Although the book makes for an invigorating – or sometimes irritating – read, I do not think that it will go down in history as the work that opened the eyes of thousands of scientists to the bitter truth of reality.