I GREW UP in an era when science had an aura of certainty and solidity: it was ‘the true exemplar of authentic knowledge’, as the eminent sociologist Robert K Merton put it. History inevitably contains a subjective element, and there are different and legitimate views about the significance of a work of literature, but science was different. At school we learned which chlorides are insoluble and which metals are attacked by hydrochloric acid: no room for subjectivity or different interpretations there. We learned the laws of motion, as set down by Newton hundreds of years ago: not theories but laws that can’t be broken. The science was incontestable, so your answer in the school test was either right or wrong. At university, all the physics and chemistry I learned as an undergraduate was solid, unquestioned knowledge.
Science spoke with a particular authority. It has been argued that other disciplines were affected by this perception; some observers think ‘physics envy’ led economics down the path of mathematical modelling and arcane theories that, applied to financial products, wrought havoc in the real world. That is another story.
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