Readers of my July blog may recall a brief reference to the work of physicist Richard Feynman. Taking my reading of quantum theory and its impact on us “down the rabbit hole”, as they increasingly say today, I was struck whilst reading some more of Feynman’s work – this time a series of lectures entitled “The Meaning of it All” – by his thoughts on what he describes as “the unscientific age” in which he argues we live. 

Without wanting to be too reductive by way of a summary, Feynman argues that whilst we value scientific discovery, as expressed through our technology (and perhaps the most recent example of this takes the form of our gratitude to the microbiologists and virologists working tirelessly to fight Covid-19), we haven’t sufficiently embraced science, and scientists, within our broader culture.  He compares our world with that of the ancient Greeks and Romans where their military heroes were almost the exclusive source of poetry, plays, prose, architecture and art, or the medieval period in which religious figures and stories were the primary source of cultural inspiration.  Yet, from the times of Newton, through Priestly, Darwin, Watson and Crick, Einstein to Hawking we have admired, but not embraced these individuals and their work to our hearts via our stories, songs, and art.

Feynman attributes this in no small part to the greatest gift that the onset of The Age of Reason in the eighteenth century brought to us – the value of doubt.  It is through the admission of uncertainty that we learn, we discover, we find out more and we grow.  Those of us who are parents or spend considerable time in the company of young children know the persistence, and insistence, of “but why?” questions.  These are a natural and effective way for them to try and make sense of the strange world within which they find themselves – an imperative for a young child, but still hugely important for us grown adults too.  For scientists, the “but how?” question is arguably even more important, as it propels us towards an understanding of function, not merely purpose.

In our schools – through our curriculum, assessments, our teaching and leadership – we seek to encourage curiosity and scepticism in all children of every age.  It is our mission to help the next generation on how to think, not what to think. 

We need to walk the talk as teachers and leaders in our schools in this regard.  Reading “The Advantage” by Patrick Lencioni, I was amused to read an analogy which he related to organisations and their search for accurate information through data.  He recounts an old episode of “I Love Lucy” in which Lucille Ball has lost an earring whilst at home.  Her husband comes home from work (it was the 1950s, after all!) to find her on her hands and knees in the living room looking through the pile in the carpet.  “Now, are you sure you lost your earring in here?”, he asks.  “Oh no”, she replies.  “I lost it in the kitchen, but the light is better in here!” 

The message?  We may be tempted to look for answers in “well-lit”, but inappropriate places.  The absence of secondary school external examinations and primary school tests gives us the opportunity for a re-set when looking at our schools and what they are exceptional at, and what needs improvement.  Only from there, can we ask the scientists’ question of “But how?” in order to secure that improvement.

I will sign off here on perhaps a more sombre note than usual in my blogs by reaffirming my admiration for all those who value doubt and articulate their doubts and scepticism – sometimes at great personal cost.  The opposite of doubt is certainty, and one only has to watch the news to see where certainty leads: to absolutism of authority and the polarisation of people and society between those who believe the ascribed orthodoxy and those who do not.  It is the imposition of dogma based upon certainty where in reality there is none, that leads to despair and societal regression. May we always have the good sense, and the freedom, to doubt.

As always, thanks for reading – and I hope you are enjoying a good summer.