Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent

When the Canadian Minister of Natural Resources, Joe Oliver, proclaimed this week in an official press conference that our concern for climate change was ‘exaggerated’, the press rightly fell over him. There is a good summary of that controversial event here: http://o.canada.com/2013/04/12/blog-joe-oliver-casts-doubt-on-climate-science-in-defence-of-oilsands/ . Do read it if you missed the hullabaloo.

Joe Oliver has no background in science. He has a law degree and an MBA and then went on to work in investment banking and securities. Read his CV here: http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/media-room/minister/1955.

The only thing I could think of when I was confronted with this last bit of evidence-denying ideological political game playing of our Federal Government was Ludwig Wittgenstein’s last proposition, the title of this post.

Full disclosure: I am not a philosopher, I was educated in earth sciences and those degree programs were woefully lacking in philosophy and history of science, which I only discovered much later. I read bits of Karl Popper’s work, all of Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The structure of scientific revolutions’ and the occasional article here and there, among others about Wittgenstein’s work (by the way, did you know that his brother Paul Wittgenstein lost an arm in WWI and that Maurice Ravel wrote his now-famous piano concerto for the left hand for him?).

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” is one of the world’s foremost philosophical works and it consists only of a hefty series of propositions. The book has been sitting around here for a while and I promise I’ll start reading it after I finish writing this post.

Of course, you shouldn’t speak about things that you know nothing about. Scientists find that self-evident. Isn’t that what science is all about? You try to move forward in your little corner of the sciences, you work according to the rigorous principles of the scientific method, you present your results at a conference and your audience says “how do you know”? “what is your evidence?” “why didn’t you think of collecting other samples/data?” etc. It’s intimidating when you’re young and then it becomes a sport that you wallow in. You start to feel confident, you’re on top of the data, you know where your conclusions come from and where your research should be going and you can answer the questions with authority. You’re making progress.

That’s what Pablo Casals, one of the world’s most famous cellists said when he was asked, at age 80, if he was still practicing. Oh yes, he was still practicing. The interviewer asked why, still, after all this fame and at this age, he was still practicing. His answer: “I think I’m making progress”. He hit the nail on the head – and everyone who is passionate about a trade, an art or his or her science, knows what he meant: we practice and practice and we try to make progress, but we never give up practicing.

And we teach our students these principles as well. Just last week, I was the external reader for a BSc-level thesis. The student had done an impressive amount of work but of course there were loose ends. When it was my turn, I started with a question about one of those loose ends. She hesitated a moment and then said “I don’t know”. I was proud of her! No waffle speak, no trying to come up with something that sounds intelligent but has been fabricated just to sound smart, just “I don’t know”.

There it was: “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”. My student will do well, she will continue to practice (she has been accepted in an MSc program), she will continue to grow and she will contribute to our understanding of the earth. That’s progress.

Try that, Joe Oliver


About earth science society

I am an earth scientist. Understanding earth is essential for the well-being of our global society. Earth is fascinating, science is fascinating and a better understanding of both can help society forward. This blog attempts to make a contribution to raising awareness of these issues.
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