Richard Dawkins Lecture Page 4
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Far from being over-confident, many scientists believe that science advances only by disproof of its hypotheses. Konrad Lorenz said he hoped to disprove at least one of his own hypotheses every day before breakfast. That was absurd, especially coming from the grand old man of the science of ethology, but it is true that scientists, more than others, impress their peers by admitting their mistakes.

A formative influence on my undergraduate self was the response of a respected elder statesmen of the Oxford Zoology Department when an American visitor had just publicly disproved his favourite theory. The old man strode to the front of the lecture hall, shook the American warmly by the hand and declared in ringing, emotional tones: "My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years." And we clapped our hands red. Can you imagine a Government Minister being cheered in the House of Commons for a similar admission? "Resign, Resign" is a much more likely response!

Yet there is hostility towards science. And not just from the green ink underlining brigade, but from published novelists and newspaper columnists. Newspaper columns are notoriously ephemeral, but their drip drip, week after week, or day after day, repetition gives them influence and power, and we have to notice them. A peculiar feature of the British press is the regularity with which some of its leading columnists return to attack science -- and not always from a vantage point of knowledge. A few weeks ago, Bernard Levin's effusion in The Times was entitled "God, me and Dr Dawkins" and it had the subtitle: "Scientists don't know and nor do I -- but at least I know I don't know".

It is no mean task to plumb the full depths of what Mr Bernard Levin does not know, but here's an illustration of the gusto with which he boasts of it.

"Despite their access to copious research funds, today's scientists have yet to prove that a quark is worth a bag of beans. The quarks are coming! The quarks are coming! Run for your lives . . .! Yes, I know I shouldn't jeer at science, noble science, which, after all, gave us mobile telephones, collapsible umbrellas and multi-striped toothpaste, but science really does ask for it . . . Now I must be serious. Can you eat quarks? Can you spread them on your bed when the cold weather comes?"

It doesn't deserve a reply, but the distinguished Cambridge scientist, Sir Alan Cottrell, wrote a brief Letter to the Editor:- "Sir: Mr Bernard Levin asks 'Can you eat quarks?' I estimate that he eats 500,000,000,000,000, 000,000 quarks a day."

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