Thoughts and writings on neuroscience, art, and consciousness from neurologist V.S. Ramachandran.

Crick's PragmatismTuesday, May 31, 2011 7:40 PM

In the next few blogs I'll tell you about some of my early encounters with Francis Crick. Although the quotes are from Crick, it may well be that in some cases he was quoting others. They are also from my memory, which isnt always 100% reliable.

When Crick began his foray into the field of consciousness in the early 1980's he would sometimes give informal seminars on the topic to small groups. I remember one such occasion when Crick had barely started his seminar and a philosopher in the audience raised his hand saying " Dr Crick, what exactly do you MEAN by the word consciousness? Can you first define it before you start talking about it?" Crick's reply was, " No, not at this stage. There was never a time in the history of biology when a group of us sat around the table saying 'Lets first DEFINE life before studying it.' We just went out there and found out what it was—a double helix. We leave matters of semantic hygiene to you philosophers."

Double Helix, by James Gaither
Double Helix, courtesy James Gaither

A pithy way of saying science is an intensely pragmatic affair. Of course it's a good idea to know roughly what you are talking about, but sometimes precise definitions FOLLOW conceptual clarity—not vice versa. Crick's advice is well taken but should not be used as an excuse for shoddy thinking. (I expand on this theme in several endnotes in my new book Tell Tale Brain)

Crick would also often point out that one must scrupulously avoid getting caught up in the elegance or technical sophistication of an experiment; what matters most of all is if you end up proving what you set out to prove: so what?—what is its broader significance? He often quoted someone as having said "If an experiment is not worth doing, it's not worth doing well."

In fact, on one occasion, a rather pedantic experimental psychologist was telling him about a long complicated experiment he had done, incorporating all the proper controls and using considerable technical virtuosity. When he saw Crick's exasperated expression he said "but Dr. Crick, we have got it RIGHT—we know its right," Crick's response was, "The point is not whether it's right. The point is: does it even MATTER whether its right or wrong?"

Here again, that intense pragmatism.

By V.S. Ramachandran. Categories: History, Scientific Method

Comment by Gokul Rajan - Thursday 02nd June 2011 10:19:33 AM

Interesting! Looking forward to learn more crickisms! This blog will help us (me and many more students' like me) to learn how to do science!
Comment by Sean - Thursday 02nd June 2011 05:35:10 PM

I wonder how Crick would have responded to the University of Chicago slogan: "I know it works in practice but what about theory"?