‘Empirical view has shaped modern outlook of science that has the capacity to transform societies’
Chennai, 30 December 2011. The idea of favouring experiment and observation over belief, and the empirical over the anecdotal, which was at the core of the evolution of modern science, continues to be its most important guiding principle, Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan has said.
The Joint Head of the Structural Studies Division at the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology, Cambridge in the UK, was delivering the second S.V. Narasimhan Memorial Oration under the auspices of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan here on Thursday.
It was also not possible to have good science without freedom of thought, which was important for the development of science since the era of The Reformation in the 16 century. “It is not possible to have very good science for sustained periods without complete freedom of thought,” said Dr. Ramakrishnan, who was born in Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu.
The scientist, hailed for his path-breaking work on ribosomes that got him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009, pointed out that modern science had its origins in the times of Copernicus and Galileo, who were proponents of the idea that if observation and belief failed to tally, it was the belief that was deemed to be wrong rather than what was observed.
This idea was helped by the spirit of Reformation across Europe in the 16 century. It not only spawned a distrust of authority and freedom of thought, but also led to competing views of science — one that attached importance to the elegance of theory and a scientist’s stature and the other that debunked anything, however beautiful or whoever the votary, if the proposal was not verifiable by experiment.
Eventually, the empirical view won out and had since shaped the modern outlook of science, which had the capacity to transform societies. Pointing to the motto — “On Nobody’s Word” — of the Foundation of the Royal Society, one of the oldest scientific societies in the world, Dr. Ramakrishnan said this principle had come to define modern science.
Many widespread beliefs failed the evidence-based test and yet got perpetuated primarily because of the human nature’s difficulty in separating cause from coincidence. While the human predisposition to recognise patterns had had good consequences — leading to mathematics, music and art — it also made us imagine patterns where they didn’t exist, he said.
Dr. Ramakrishnan illustrated the missing link between correlation and causality by pointing out that the mere correlation between the stork population and the birth rate in a nation did not establish the myth that storks bring babies.
His personal view was that the mind-boggling proposition by the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) about neutrinos travelling faster than light would go the way of the debunked Cold Fusion theory (1989).
The important thing, however, was that science, by its nature, was self-correcting — as new evidence emerged, scientists refined their hypotheses and theories. “It is this built-in self-correction that distinguishes science from other systems of belief. In science, it is not bad to be wrong, but it is bad definitely to falsify.”
Chairman of the Bhavan’s Chennai Kendra T.S. Krishna Murthy and S.N. Srikanth, CMD of the Hauer–Diana Group of companies and son of S.V. Narasimhan participated.