04/05/2008 05:57 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The shoulders of pygmies

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" said Isaac Newton, imitating Robert Burton and Bernard Chartres. Not true of course. Newton wasn't often wrong - except of course about the way the universe actually worked - but this time he was. It is often quoted though, as some kind of indication of the way science works.

But science doesn't work through the efforts of a series of giants, and Isaac has unwittingly played into the hands of those who neither understand science nor want it to play any part in the modern world except for developing large screen televisions. I'm reluctant to tackle Isaac, a giant himself in anyone's estimation, including his own, but having mildly contradicted Charles Darwin a while back I feel I'm on a roll.

So here goes - scientists, including Newton, don't stand on the shoulders of giants but on the shoulders of pygmies. Who on turn stood on other pygmies. Who in turn stood on other pygmies. And so ad infinitum. Or at least and so on back to Ancient Greece.

The point about scientific endeavor is that it almost always proceeds by small steps, each step having to be related to, rationalized with, the step that was taken just before. Oh, sure, there are occasional big breakthroughs, paradigm shifts, but they are rare, and even they have to take into account all that has preceded them and make sure that the jump is in accord with all the evidence and theory that is being cast aside.

Imagine it as a relay race, the baton being passed from one runner to the next, each examining it closely to make sure it is an actual baton before making minor changes to it and then passing it on in turn. A line of runners extending back through some two and a half thousand years. Occasionally a runner who is a better athlete than others, or who has sharper eyes, will realize that after all the changes the baton is no longer working properly, can't be held in the hand comfortably. and they will make major changes to its design and function before passing it on to the next runner as before.

This process, of having to not only satisfy yourself, but to be at the end of a chain of thousands of others who have also had to be satisfied, is what sets science apart. Yes the scientific method of testing hypotheses is somewhat more rigorous than the way our minds work in everyday life, but fundamentally science is different to, say, religion or politics, because no scientist operates in an a-historical vacuum. Unfortunately the media does, and it treats scientific progress as if it is a series of pronouncements coming out of the blue, just like the ranting of a televangelist or a candidate for president.

The average person in the street is confused by this treatment, and sees the scientist as just someone who has had a hunch or an opinion or has made a lucky guess. Joe Six Pack could do those things, might get a winning lottery ticket for example. The evangelical in the pew thinks that there is no reason to think that the average scientist is any more likely to be right than the average preacher. The school student thinks that the pieces of science they are being taught are no different to the items of undigested news they see on television. And politicians are quite happy to go along with the opinion of a single climate change denier, or a foolish creation scientist. There is no reason to take action on climate change - just the opinion of James Hansen. No reason not to teach intelligent design along side evolution in class - the opinion of Michael Behe is no worse than the opinion of Charles Darwin.

Next time you hear this kind of analysis picture the pygmies, a great chain of thousands of them, sitting on each other's shoulders. Then ask yourself who is seeing further.

Find out whose shoulders I am sitting on by reading The Watermelon Blog.