Motivations Versus Results

I recently encountered an interesting misconception about science. A goodly number of people were incensed at the publication of a scientific paper presenting a hydrodynamic analysis demonstrating that it was theoretically possible for the seas to part for Moses at the outset of the Exodus. All they really showed was that a sufficiently strong and continuous wind was capable of pushing a shallow body of water away from one area. It’s a perfectly reasonable idea to pursue and the authors seem to have made their case analytically. 

The objection lay in the fact that the authors were motivated by a desire to demonstrate the plausibility of the “parting of the sea” myth in the Bible. The critics argued that science that is motivated by religious considerations is necessarily corrupted by those considerations, and is therefore unworthy of serious consideration. They argue that science must never be tainted by religious factors.

Their mistake lay in conflating the motivations of individual scientists with their actual results. The fact that the authors of the paper were inspired by an old fable in no wise subtracts from its scientific merit. I have known the fantasies of science fiction to have been the source of fascinating scientific discussions, although I know of no papers resulting from such discussions. I can imagine a number of fictional phenomena that could (and possibly already have) provided provender for interesting scientific analysis: Scylla from the Odyssey; the Flood tales of Middle Eastern mythology (do they reflect ancient knowledge of the filling of the Black Sea c 10,000 BCE?); Merlin’s transport of the bluestones for Stonehenge from the Arthurian legends (how did they get the source location right?); the references to dragons in the mythology of weakly connected cultures (do they reflect some actual creature or combination of creatures?)

There’s a larger issue here: the importance of a playful attitude in the pursuit of knowledge. Some of our best ideas come from flights of fancy. Sometimes scientists are inspired by decidedly unscientific considerations. The laws of probability were first established by a French mathematician thinking about how to win card games. Isaac Newton was almost fanatic in his Christian fundamentalism, which in turn drove him to understand what he took to be God’s handiwork -- should we discard Newtonian mechanics because Newton was seeking to glorify God in his researches? Einstein famously developed some of his ideas about special relativity by imagining himself riding on top of a beam of light -- is that not an absurd fantasy? There have been a number of scholarly papers published on the Tippy-Top, a child’s toy. The fact that the subject of the paper is a child’s toy does not detract from the scientific merit of the analysis of the dynamics of the object.

Homo sapiens is not a robot; cognitive processes can be inspired by all sorts of considerations. Let us hope that no psychologist ever carries out research to determine the degree to which sexual desires motivate scientific research -- the results would, I’m sure, undermine the gravitas science enrobes itself with. Let us ignore the motivations behind any individual scientist’s work and instead focus our attentions on the work itself. After all, who cares about any particular scientist? We’re here to study science, not scientists.