The One Thing to Believe If You’re Only Going to Believe One Thing

Over in Twitter-land, S. C. Kavassalis notes a Googler who’s not afraid to ask the big questions:

Weird Google search of the week: ‘the “one” scientific idea that we need to believe’. Uh um, I’m sure my blog couldn’t possibly answer that.

It’s a good question, though, ad there are a couple of different ways to take it. You could read it as “What one scientific idea is supported by the most experimental proof?” or you could read it as “What one idea is most central to science generally?”

“The Standard Model” was quickly suggested on Twitter, which could fit either. I think it might be stretching the definition of “one” idea a bit, though I admit I’m not sure what to do with the quotes around “one” in the original query. You can certainly claims all sorts of experimental verification for the component parts of the Standard Model, though. (In some ways, it’s too well verified– theorists have been hoping for experimental evidence of physics beyond the Standard Model for decades, but it’s pretty thin.) And you can, in principle, derive the rest of science from the Standard Model, though I wouldn’t want to try it.

If you want to put tighter limits on the meaning of “‘one’ idea,” and lean toward the second reading of the question, it’s really hard to top Feynman:

If, in some cataclysm, all scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence you will see an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

He’s right that there’s a huge amount of information there. Asking how atoms assemble into larger objects gets you directly into chemistry, condensed matter physics, and materials science. Asking what atoms are made of gets you into atomic physics, and then into nuclear and particle physics. You probably could reconstruct most of modern science starting with that fact as Received Wisdom of the Ancients. I don’t know if anybody has done a latter-day Canticle for Leibowitz using that as part of the background, but it might be amusing.

I’m sure somebody out there will at least think they can do better, though, so have it it. What one scientific idea do we need to believe?

30 thoughts on “The One Thing to Believe If You’re Only Going to Believe One Thing

  1. My first thought on seeing the question was probably not properly set to the scope you’re working on, but it was “The scientific methodology. Hypotheses must be tested and found valid through experimentation; if the hypotheses are not supported by the observed data, the hypotheses should be revised. No part of the hypothesis should be considered unchangeable without experimental data supporting it.”

    I was thinking primarily of the “epicycle” business in Greek astronomy, where when the observations didn’t match the theory, the theory wasn’t reconsidered, additional elements were just bolted on for support. Because the basic theory had to be sound, because…because.

  2. If you’ll permit me going a tad meta on this one, I think the most important scientific idea that we need to believe in is that evidence is ultimately paramount in deciding what is true. All the theory in the world will not get you to an understanding of the world– for that, you must also have experiment. Obviously, I think theory’s pretty bloody important too, or I wouldn’t be a theorist, but my point is that theory cannot ever be allowed to operate in a vacuum divorced from the standards of evidence.

  3. You can have your atomic fact while you’re dying of bubonic plague, I’ll be laughing all the way to the germ theory bank.

  4. When you first asked the question the idea that sprung to mind was:
    “Life comes from life”

    Redi–and more definitively–Pasteur’s disproving of spontaneous generation was pretty big. (“biogenesis”)

    As becca mentioned, I absolutely thought of germ theory and cell theory next. 🙂

    Keep in mind, I’m biology-based, hence the name AmoebaMike.

  5. I was really torn with how this question should be answered, taking the second definition to be the main goal of it. My first thought was really the “scientific methodology” as well, because it is the most fundamental to all science (and thought), but that has already been stated nicely.

    I think if I had to pick a less “meta” concept though, the ‘atomic hypothesis’ is actually a perfect idea for an answer, not just because it leads into so many different fields, but because it epitomizes the, in a manner of speaking, process-oriented approach to science. The idea that things start small and are built up out of many different components and different components interact in different ways with each other is really fundamental, not only to science but to almost all kinds of interactions. The basic thought process that comes from atomic theory leads nicely into evolution and even into human interactions.

    If I’m not allowed to pick the “ability to think critically” or the “scientific method”, then I think my favourite idea is that “stuff is made of other different stuff, and everything interacts differently when in differently situations and combinations”.

  6. From physics, I’ve got a soft spot for the principle of least action. With a little bit of physics knowledge + the principle of least action one can derive many equations of motions, conservation theorems (via Noethers theorem) and stuff like the Lagrangian for relativistic particles.

    If we’re going for a more general view, I think Chris has it right with the belief that “evidence is paramount to deciding what’s true”. This to me is the basis of all science, and is science down to its core.

  7. Along with others above who have expressed the sentiment: science works. (or, to xkcd it: Science. It works, bitches).

  8. I LOVE the answer “42” but that is for another question. I like the answer “the scientific method” but I would be even more specific — An experiment, repeated exactly, will produce the same result every time.

  9. Don’t knock ’42’. It’s serious in its own farcical way, because it represents a healthy attitude and outlook on the Universe. What it says to me, among many other things, is that we can’t really be certain that we know anything at all and the sooner we recognize that fact the sooner we can understand what life is really all about. Countless cultures have thrived and prospered for centuries — both before and since the so-called scientific method was postulated. Science is not a requirement for understanding life, the Universe, and — well — everything. Do you ever wonder why the Founding Fathers of the US talked about the “pursuit of happiness” a good 200 years before “New Age”-think became fashionable? They based an entire society on the concept. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Fly, be free! Aspire to happiness. Laugh. At yourself. At others. At science. At the Universe. 42, man!

  10. I think that “the standard model” doesn’t count as “one.” I also think that the idea that things are made of atoms is far too advanced to be useful without the things people had to discover before that. Do we throw out all Greek science and geometry? How about Newton’s laws? Does this include a periodic table? They might be obvious to you, but they weren’t obvious to anybody for thousands of years; any more than double entry bookkeeping or Arabic numerals.
    Instead, I think that we have to look at a concept that Changes our point of view–and that does not require other prior work. James Burke did a TV series and book called “The Day the Universe Changed.” I have to say, that ultimately, the idea that the universe is composed of planets and stars whirling in space is probably the single most significant concept to change our point of view with regard to the universe, determinism, our size and so forth. Oddly, there is evidence that pre-ptolemy astronomers came to the same conclusion as Copernicus. But that point of view was so iconoclastic that it was rubbed out. Gallileo’s work was not merely to show that the sun was the center of the universe, but to show the massive distances involved.
    I think this is a single idea that changes everything, and it is not cheating by requiring the knowledge of Geometry, calculus, newton’s laws, etc.

  11. Some previous posters have highlighted specific examples of mathematical laws or models (Standard Model, least action and so on), but I think the general principle that scientific laws can expressed quantitatively in a precise mathematical form is an important guiding idea. Firstly, because it helps to distinguish precisely between competing hypotheses by comparing their predictions quantitatively, and secondly because it helps to reveal the universality of many physical phenomena via the similarity of their underlying mathematical description. Indeed, it seems like the limiting form of most physical theories is pure mathematics, which is essentially the only “baggage-free” description of nature we have.

  12. I thought the most important word in that question was “need”.

    To which the answer, of course, is “we don’t need any”. The reason we’re inquisitive is to improve the accuracy of our model of the world around us, in order that no nasty surprises kill or eat us. Bonobos, who do nothing but eat, sleep and hump, seem to get along pretty well without any science at all. In that sense, science is a luxury.

    Or maybe it’s “believe”.

    In which case the answer is again “none of them”. We, as scientists, should believe nothing, but instead do everything we can to test any given scientific idea to destruction.

  13. I’m clearly in “meta” territory, but along with several others it seems.

    “Things behave according to rules that we can find out.” would be my attempt to reduce it down to one thing, and one as simple as possible.

  14. “Believe” is the wrong word choice for this question .. unless we refer to belief in a God, Gods, Godesses, spirits, and the like.

    Anyone who inquires about what might the most important scientific principle to share, note Feynman’s elegant wording quoted above: “only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I ”

    So I’d answer the original question “‘the “one” scientific idea that we need to believe” by an emphatic NONE.

    I would like share the info that FACTS are worth researching. That logic, reason and experimental techniques (from simple to technological complex) are important. That understanding the

    We still need some measure of “belief” — but only in the sense of trusting that the people and institutions doing scientific research are doing their job to the best of their abilities & financial & technological means, and do not lie; that they report errors and limits of their research as scientific protocol requires.

  15. Since the question is regarding belief, I have to cast another vote for the scientific method. The proportion of religious people to methodological naturalists in the world is a testament to empiricism’s counter-intuitiveness.

    Hopefully, enough of the survivors would be scientifically literate enough to at least point the next generation in the right directions, such as microbial, evolutionary and atomic theory.

    The one single belief that should be preserved for all time is the importance of not believing anything absolutely and to judge the strength of our assumptions by experiment.

    That will, of course, probably be of little comfort when the scavenging and cannibalism begin.

  16. I’m going for the scientific method as well, but I’m not sure I would focus on replicability as a dogma…might make things a little hairy with all of those scientific events that depend on historical contigency (chaotic systems). If given a false dichotomy between perfect replicability and fairies, people may choose fairies.

    OTOH, just going to plug Hal Clement’s classic SF novel, Cycle of Fire, which deals with exactly this issue (what of science would you pass on?) in some detail.


  17. “Mathematics works in understanding the world.” The scientific era: mathematical modeling instead of phylosophical arguments.

  18. 12
    I LOVE the answer “42” but that is for another question. I like the answer “the scientific method” but I would be even more specific — An experiment, repeated exactly, will produce the same result every time.

    Posted by: Sweetwater Tom | April 29, 2010 4:53 PM

    Obviously, you’re not a biologist…

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