CHRIS: Hey Sacred Space Astronomy readers, Br. Guy and I have a new book to tell you about.
Br. GUY: You might have seen it already in the Vatican Observatory newsletter. It’s by both of us, and it is called When Science Goes Wrong: The Desire and Search for Truth.
CHRIS: It will make a great Christmas present!
Br. GUY: One for everyone on your list. Maybe, two for everyone on your list.
CHRIS: Guy, we both had a big hand in this book. We both contributed large chunks, and then edited and tweaked each other’s stuff to the point that When Science Goes Wrong is truly a joint effort. But the idea for this book was yours.
Br. GUY: I thought it was your idea. Certainly you provided most of the good stories and did most of the research work.
CHRIS: I did think this book would be a great opportunity to share that research and those stories with a broad audience. But what was the reason you jumped in to writing this book?
Br. GUY: Good question. What was I thinking?
Well, one thing I learned from my Jesuit education is that every idea, like all of Gaul, can be divided into three parts. So here are the three big take-aways that I know I hoped to communicate in When Science Goes Wrong:
First, not only does science go wrong, it goes wrong even when the scientists are brilliant and the data they use are the best in the world. That’s because science is not a source of absolute, unchanging truth. Just the opposite — it is an ever-changing description of the universe, always the best we have at the moment, but always subject to improvement.
Instead of saying “failure is not an option”, in science it’s just the reverse: failure is a requirement. Science advances precisely by going wrong… by not being afraid to go wrong, by actively looking for places where it needs to be shored up or improved (or even replaced).
CHRIS: And my research into the history of science has provided some great examples of science going wrong! Especially in stories of brilliant people and great data.
Br. GUY: Yes it has!
And since science advances precisely by going wrong, that means that to succeed, you have to check your ego at the door. A successful piece of science is a work that eventually becomes obsolete — precisely because it was so useful, so good, that others came along who wanted to push it further and improve what you gave them. You have to be in love with getting closer to the truth, and not with your own self-importance. Value in the world of science is based not on how much you accumulated, but on how much you could give away to whoever wanted what you had.
CHRIS: The same can be said about writing a book. One of those famous bits of advice in editing your writing is to “sacrifice your darlings” — get rid of stuff that seemed clever at the time.
Br. GUY: That’s where having a co-author is so valuable, especially one whom you can trust to point out the darlings that need sacrifice.
My third point about seeing science go wrong is that this whole process is a lot of fun. There’s a certain delight, and value, in seeing egg on the face of a Galileo or a Newton. It gives us confidence that we don’t have to be geniuses, and we don’t have to be perfect, either. Science is not some cold fundamentalist religion that can never laugh at itself. The stories we tell, even when science going wrong has serious consequences, nonetheless are stories of silly, fallible, goofy human beings… not all that different from you and me.
CHRIS: There are certainly serious parts to the book. The pandemic is a focus of the book. We’ve also slipped in some serious points about science and religion, two of which stand out in my mind.
One of those is our claim that, for all that has been written about science vs. religion and the Copernican Revolution, the disputes at the time of Copernicus were not fundamentally about religion; they were ultimately a matter of two competing arguments of science. I think that’s a little different (which I like) from what “everybody knows” about Copernicus. It’s also a little disturbing, given that this is in a book about science going wrong, and that being, as you say, a requirement in science!
The other is our argument about the usual narrative regarding “science on the march and religion in retreat” (typically invoked regarding the Galileo story, of course). We say that narrative is overlooking a very important episode in the history of science.
Br. GUY: An episode when science tried to evaluate and judge the worth of human beings.
CHRIS: Right. I am interested to see how readers react to both these points.
Br. GUY: Do you think they’ll get it?
CHRIS: When you co-author a book, especially when both authors are contributing, editing and adjusting the whole thing all throughout the writing process, as we did, then perhaps you have to wait for the readers to tell you what your points are!
I mean, I know what I intended say in writing this book; you know what you intended to say. I think I understand what you intended — I certainly tried to, and worked hard to tie my ideas in with yours; and you clearly tried to do likewise. But I don’t truly know your mind; you don’t know mine.
That being the case, and since our hands are both in this book so much, we may find out that what readers think we said is different from what either of us thought we were saying!
Br. GUY: That is always true in writing. In teaching, too.
CHRIS: I recall your reaction to a generally positive review of one of your books: positive or no, you thought the reviewer completely missed the point. But if ten reviewers had all said the same thing, you would have had to grant that maybe the book had taken on its own message! As they say in drag racing, “you can’t argue with tail lights”.
So I am looking forward to hearing from our readers, to find out what we really said!
Br. GUY: Well, people can CLICK HERE to see what the publisher, Paulist Press, is saying we said… and what a few of the folks who have endorsed our book have said, too.
CHRIS: People can find the book at lots of other places, too — sometimes at a pretty good “sale” price.
Br. GUY: Best of all is always to support your local bookstore; see if you can order it through them. If it takes a few days, it’s worth the wait.
CHRIS: And speaking of waiting: Happy Advent, all!
Br. GUY: And a wonderful Christmas and New Year…