Faith in Science

The road ahead may be invisible,” writes I. I. RABI,Higgins Professor of Physics at Columbia University, “but to science the unknown is a problem full of interest and promise. The scientific tradition should help us to renew and reaffirm our faith.” Dr. Rabi, who served as a member of the General Advisory Committee for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944 for his work in atomic physics.

by I. I. RABI


MANKIND is puny and feeble under the heavens as long as it is ignorant. It is ignorant in so far as it is self-limited by dogma, custom, and most of all by fear—fear of the unknown. To science the unknown is a problem full of interest and promise; in fact science derives its sustenance from the unknown; all the good things have come from that inexhaustible realm. But without the light of science the unknown is a menace to be avoided by taboo or propitiated by incantation and sacrifice. The scientific tradition rests first of all on a faith in mankind, in the ability of humans to understand, and ultimately, within certain limits, which are in the nature of things, to control, the environment in which we live in all its aspects: physical, biological, and social.

This optimistic faith has always permeated and energized the American way of life. The scientific tradition should help us to renew and reaffirm our faith. In recent years, however, ominous symptoms of moral hypochondria have disturbed the development of our institutions. Under the threat of impending conflict with the Russian empire some sections of the public have reacted with blind, irrational fear. The action of Congress in overriding the presidential veto of the anti-Communist bill and the arrogant dismissal of a large number of professors by the regents of the University of California are the newest examples of what I would call moral hypochondria. A healthy awareness of grave danger should lead to clear, considered, decisive action. Hysterical fear results in the setting up of taboos around emotionally charged words and symbols. The real objective, security for the free development of our institutions, becomes hazy and possibly perverted when panic takes over.

The greatest enemy of the scientific tradition is superstition. By superstition I do not mean merely a belief in goblins, gremlins, and the malevolent power of Friday the 13th, The superstition which is completely incompatible with the scientific tradition usually comes as a plausible system of ideas founded on premises which defy exact formulation. They may be words without a definite meaning or inferences from events inexactly described or unique and nonrepetitive.

An attempt to study a superstition in an external, objective fashion usually encounters emotional and often physical opposition from its proponents. Mankind seems to have a genius for the invention of superstition. As science advances, superstition makes more and more use of the terminology of science; it becomes in fact a parody of the scientific method, a deft mixture of the true and the false, which often has a fatal fascination.

The best examples of this sort of thing can probably be found within the realm of the Soviets. The whole Nazi movement in Germany was founded on this kind of superstition. Superstitions arise everywhere and there is no force which can hope to combat them successfully except science.

Even science itself has not been wholly free from superstition. Science strives for understanding, but how can one distinguish understanding from mere plausibility? The scientific tradition, although affirmative in spirit, polices itself by a profound skepticism. There are many examples where scientists have made mistakes, where they have been fooled or have fooled themselves. However, all their work passes under the scrutiny of friendly but skeptical minds.

Individual authority no longer possesses any force in the scientific tradition. No scientist, however great his renown, can mislead his fellow scientists for longer than it takes to check his observations or verify his conclusions and their consequences. Whether the individual scientist acknowledges his error or not is of little consequence as long as the tradition is kept pure. Controversy and polemic are now outmoded forms of scientific publication except possibly within the Soviet Union. Even there the appeal is hardly meant for fellow scientists.

I dwell on this point not only to show something of the reason for the great authority of established scientific doctrine, but also to indicate the way of life of science when it is free. If some of the customs and tradition of science could be transferred to the halls of our Congress or the United Nations, how beautiful life could become.

It is a truism to say that the application of science to technology is the basis of modern life in the United States. I refer not only to the products in everyday use, from the automobile parked in the street to the detergent in the kitchen, but more to the living social integration of our economy. Cut a relatively few electric power lines and the larger gasoline pipes which cross the country from west to east and south to north and keep them cut for a while. The effect on the life of the country would be like a thumb on the windpipe of a baby. Even the proud independent farmer would be unable to cultivate his acres without gasoline. His horses are gone and his wife is not inured to pulling the plow.

The development of new means of communication, production, transportation, and control have not merely added new possibilities to an existing way of living: they have so altered our basic patterns of organization that national life as of today would be impossible without them. We consider ourselves exponents of individualism and free enterprise, and national planning is on the whole unpopular. Yet we live under a degree of integration of social effort comparable to that of the cells in our bodies. I doubt very much whether we would have dared to build a social structure which is so vulnerable to attack from without, and to social disorganization from within, if it were actually planned from the very beginning.

On the other hand, if we consider the assimilation of science into our way of thought we find that our general public — and even our educated public — is as ignorant of science as a healthy Hottentot is of physiology. We are like the city boy who likes milk but is afraid of cows.

It is one of the paradoxes of our age that our general public, our lawmakers, our molders of public opinion, novelists, columnists, labor leaders, and administrators, have not devoted themselves more to understanding this force which is shaping our present and our future. Wise decisions in which science is involved cannot be reached merely by consulting experts. The very aims and ideals which condition these decisions come from the intellectual and spiritual background of the people who are in positions of responsibility. These ideals come from within and are a part of the culture of the nation. We do not ask an expert to tell us what should be our heart’s desire. We only ask him how it is to be attained.

Barring war or other catastrophe, our standard of living, and therefore our dependence on science, will increase rather than decrease. Even if our population were decentralized, our dependence on science would not be lessened, but rather increased, if we wish to maintain and better our standards of health and comfort. Is it not folly to believe that a complex organism like our society, dependent as it is on science for its lifeblood and development, can continue to be managed properly by people whose education is not imbued with the living tradition of science, who have never experienced the influence of a scientific discipline?

For what science has to offer, and for what the country needs, a mere interest in the so-called scientific method, without specific knowledge of some part of some science, is as devoid of content as moral principle without moral action.


OVER and above our lives as citizens, we also live our lives as individuals. What has science to offer as a guide to conduct and to the enrichment of one’s inner life?

Fundamental to the existence of science is a body of established facts which come either from observation of nature in the raw, so to speak, or from experiment. Without facts we have no science. Facts are to the scientist what words are to the poet. The scientist has a love of facts, even isolated facts, similar to the poet’s love of words. But a collection of facts is not science any more than a dictionary is poetry. Around his facts the scientist weaves a logical pattern or theory which gives the facts meaning, order, and significance. For example, no one can look at a brilliant night sky without emotion, but the realization that the earth and planets move in great orbits according to simple laws gives proportion and significance to this experience.

Theory may be qualitative and descriptive like Darwin’s theory of the origin of species, or quantitative, exact, and mathematical in form like Newton’s theory of the motions of planets. In both cases the theory goes far beyond the facts because it has unforeseen consequences which can be applied to new facts or be tested by experiment.

A scientific theory is not a discovery of a law of nature in the sense of a discovery of a mine or the end result of a treasure hunt or a statute that has been hidden in an obscure volume. It is a free creation of the human mind. It becomes a guide to new discovery and a way of looking at the world — which gives it meaning.

A successful theory goes far beyond the facts which it was made to fit. Newton in his laws of motion and theory of universal gravitation essentially created a universe which seemed to have the same properties as the existing universe. But it is hardly to be expected that the creation of a finite human mind would duplicate existing nature in every respect. The history of science indicates that it can’t be done. Newton’s theory has given place to Einstein’s theory of relativity and gravitation. The Darwinian theory has been greatly modified by the geneticists.

The great scientific theories enable us to project our knowledge to enormous distances in time and space. They enable us to penetrate below the surface to the interior of the atom, or to the operation of our bodies and our minds. They are tremendously strong and beautiful structures, the fruit of the labors of many generations. Yet they are man-made and contingent. New discoveries and insights may modify them or even overthrow them entirely. However, what was good in them is newer lost, but is taken over in the new theory in a different context. In this respect the scientist is the most conservative of men.

More than anything else, science requires for its progress opportunity for free, untrammeled, creative activity. The scientist must follow his thought and his data wherever they may lead. A new and fundamental scientific idea is always strange and uncomfortable to established doctrine and must have complete freedom in its development; otherwise it may be strangled at birth. Ever since the time of Galileo the progress of science has continued without a break and at an accelerated rate in spite of war, revolution, and persecution. However, this progress has not always been in the same country. When science faltered in Italy, it began to bloom in England and Holland, then in France and Germany. Now that scientific progress is unfortunately slowing down in Europe, science in the United States after an incredibly long period of quiescence has burst out with tremendous vigor.

The great contributions to science in any country have usually come during or close to a period of great vigor in other fields, in periods of optimism, expansion, and revolutionary creative activity. In England it was right after the Elizabethan period. Newton’s great contributions came within fifty years after the death of Shakespeare. The other great period in British science was between the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. It was also a period of great poetry. In the United States the giant figure of Benjamin Franklin had no equal down to the most recent times; his period also produced the greatest statesmen in our history.

I do not wish to imply any necessary causal connection between important achievement in different fields of activity, but no one will deny that certain intellectual, moral, and spiritual climates are more conducive to creative activity than others. No one can deny that the continuity of a living tradition can be broken by the murder, exile, or ostracism of its chief exponents, or that a culture which is sterile can be kept so indefinitely by rigorous police action which prevents the intrusion of alien ideas. We have seen all too many examples of the self-preservation of sterility in recent years.

Fortunately for the scientific tradition it carries with it many gifts, some of which are more practical than spiritual, and therefore it has never lacked a new home when the time came to move. Science has never become localized in any place or in any culture. It is merely human and universal. French science and German science, Russian, English, Japanese, and American, do not exist separately as does poetry or some other arts such as law and government. They all speak the same universal language of science and say the same things when they have something to say. When another mode is imposed from without, science either quietly dies or goes away, leaving the field to the charlatan and pseudoscientist.

What then are our conclusions? What does the tradition of science teach us?

It teaches us moderation and tolerance of ideas, not because of lack of faith in one’s own belief, but because every view is subject to change and every truth we know is only partial. The strange thought or custom may still be valid.

It teaches coöperation not only among people of the same kind, but also of the most diverse origins and cultures. Science is the most successful coöperative effort in the history of mankind.

Science inspires us with a feeling of hopefulness and of infinite possibility. The road ahead may be invisible but the tradition of science has shown that the human spirit applied in the tradition of science will find a way toward the objective. Science shows that it is possible to foresee and to plan and that we can take the future into our own hands if we rid ourselves of prejudice and superstition.

The tradition of science teaches us that no vested interests in institutions or systems of thought should escape continual re-examination merely because they have existed and have been successful. On the other hand it also teaches us to conserve what is operative and useful.

Science teaches us self-discipline. One must continually look for the mote in one’s own eye. The history of science shows that it is always there.

These lessons can be multiplied to cover almost the entire range of human activity, because science is itself a contemporaneous living thing made by men for man’s edification and entertainment.

I will close with one last, point. Science is fun even for the amateur. Every scientist is himself an amateur in another field of science which is not his specialty, but the spirit is the same. Science is a game that is inspiring and refreshing. The playing field is the universe itself. The stakes are high, because you must put down all your preconceived ideas and habits of thought. The rewards are great because you find a home in the world, a home you have made for yourself.