Intellectual Honesty: Bohr, Einstein & Respect

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I’ve been reading a lot of science books recently. My background is in the arts and science has always felt far away.

I decided to take advice from Richard Restak’s Mozart and the Fighter Pilot and start to engage in activities that stimulate excessive portions of the brain. It’s not always worked out as planned, but since I’m not counting on doing a doctorate in quantum mechanics, I’ve often just been content to see the bigger picture.

We sometimes tend to overlook the fact that science doesn’t have the answers, it has the models.

When Copernicus settled on the theory that the Sun revolves around Earth, he did so with a bunch of pretty complex calculations that made sense and justified his conclusion. It wasn’t guesswork, but it turned out that what we observe was better described by Galileo’s model — the Earth spins round the Sun.

Same with Newton, he thought he’d nailed it with his theory on gravity (a force carrying objects), but Faraday and Maxwell built on that, refining it with their discovery of electromagnetism (a field carrying radio waves etc.) then Einstein in turn with his work on a gravitational field (space itself) and photons (light particles). Each model built on, and because of the previous.

But the greatness in these models isn’t just the work it takes to construct and test them, it’s how their authors present them.

Einstein’s work is filled with sentences that begin, “I think” or “It seems to me”. Faraday also shows a famous hesitation to deliver his ideas.

It’s not a lack of confidence, it’s a show of humility, and maybe an understanding that their ideas, however certain they may look, could demolish the theories of others, but could equally be superseded themselves.

Bohr & Einstein together in 1925 (credit)

One of Albert Einstein’s biggest scientific rivals was Neils Bohr (a Danish, Jewish physicist who studied in Manchester). Bohr and Einstein entered in to a series of public debates mainly around quantum theory.

Einstein died in 1955, Bohr shortly after in 1962. After Bohr’s death, one of his students took a photo of the blackboard in Bohr’s office, noticing that on it was a diagram of Einstein’s light box — a thought experiment that set Bohr opposed to Einstein’s theories for so many years.

Even 7 years after Einstein’s death, Bohr still challenged himself and his theories, with his opponent’s model.

Apart from Bohr’s strive for truth and appetite for challenge — what’s amazing here is his respect for something he truly thought was incorrect.

That’s why they were pillars of science. Similar qualities to those that made Bach into a musical giant.

Outside of theoretical physics, in our daily politics and life, we’re stuck in echo-chambers. We couldn’t be further from Bohr’s approach. Online, a difference of opinion means confrontation, not discussion — it’s either right or wrong.

Over time we seem to have sacrificed intellectual honesty for simplicity and point scoring, which makes us, more than anything else, stupid.

There’s a simple way to implement Bohr’s approach — respect.

Respect not just for your ‘opponent’, their worldview and what drives them to their conclusion, but also for your discipline and cause — to score a personal point is minor, but to lay out an intellectually honest argument contributes to the subject itself and you become part of its development.

(I think I’m badly quoting Aristotle here, but Google isn’t helping me much)