This piece is slightly modified from a paper submitted to an online course on the scientific revolution of the 17th century. The article was an excursion into twin obsessions of mine — over-elaboration and an exploration of coaching pedagogy, explicitly, what works, and why.

My conclusion was that the scientific revolution legitimised the question as a tool for learning. From observation (“what’s going on out there?”) to hypothesis (“is this what’s happening?”) via experiment (“is my hypothesis correct?”) and on to a new understanding (or another question).

And that sounds rather like the model for coaching (and, more pertinently, learning) that I can subscribe to.

The Scientific Revolution of the 17th Century

In 1948, Herbert Butterfield, at the time Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University, gave a series of lectures in which he delineated a history of a Scientific Revolution, culminating in the seventeenth century, that “… overturned the authority in science not only of the middle ages but of the ancient world…[and which resulted]…not only in the eclipse of scholastic philosophy but in the destruction of Aristotelian physics…” [1]

Some of Butterfield’s claims are open to challenge — would the Scientific Revolution have even been possible without the Renaissance and the rediscovery of Classical Greek philosophy, for example?

But, very evidently, the Revolution he described had a tangible impact on the modern world.

It saw the emergence of the scientific method that underpins modern science to this day, science that heals and feeds the world, and drives the economies of the 21st century; a scientific method that also drove the Industrial Revolution, and urbanisation, over population, and a reliance on fossil fuels that threaten climate change and global stability.

Perhaps the most important feature of the Scientific Revolution, then, was the relegation of Aristotelian deduction (philosophical analysis of known facts to produce further understanding) in favour of induction — the derivation of general principles from specific observations, in a scientific context especially the outcomes of experiments.

What did the Scientific Revolution do for us?

Knowledge was freed from the constraints of faith, both theological and philosophical, and subjected to systematic challenge.

Why did science evolve in such a way as to drop theological and religious considerations?

One possible explanation is that it is impossible to test experimentally a theological or religious explanation of an observed phenomenon. Much like the Aristotelian Substantial form, “it is what it is because that is what it is” — disproving this experimentally (it it were possible to create an experiment to investigate a thing’s “thingness”) disproves the entire philosophical understanding of everything, without advancing scientific knowledge.

The scientific method took a step away from the unknowable.

Don’t take my word for it — find out for yourself

The motto of The Royal Society, founded in 1660 and including in its early membership many influential figures in the Scientific Revolution, is Nullius in verba (Latin for “on the word of no one” or “take nobody’s word for it”).

From The Royal Society website: [the Society’s motto] “… is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.” [2]

But this becomes more than just a new way of thinking about science. By formulating the methodology of scientific enquiry around a question (“is my hypothesis correct?”) they established a mode of enquiry for all fields.

An example — a question in sport

In my own practice as a sports coach, there is a long tradition of deferring to former greats — “Sachin batted like this, so should you”; “Dennis Lillee had a perfect, text book bowling action — bowl like him” (ignoring the fact that Lillee, one of the all-time great fast bowlers, suffered stress fractures in his spine that almost ended his career at the age of just 24).

We used to rely heavily on Demonstration and Instruction (showing or telling an athlete what to do), but these are gradually being replaced with Questioning and Feedback, the former often in the form of a physical challenge.

  • Can you consistently hit a ball in this direction
  • Can you adapt your movements to the movements of the ball as it comes towards you, so you can control where the ball goes when you do hit it?
  • Can you hit the ball into the gaps between the fielders?

Feedback can also lead to a new question — “you seem to be hitting most often to the left of the target zone — why do you think that is/how can you improve your aim?”.

There is still a place for more direct instruction, either as an early prompt (“try to hit with the flat side of the bat”) or if an athlete struggles to find their own solution (“maybe try it this way?”), but the theoretical underpinning of “experience-based learning” is defined by Ecological Dynamics [3] — essentially that an organism (athlete) will adapt to fit a particular environment (sporting challenge).

So we see a move from looking up an answer in a book, or referring to the “sage on the stage” (or, in sport, by comparison with an ideal model or the example of a former player) to asking a question.

A counter-example — the war on expertise

This shift to a sceptical mindset (believe nothing; question everything) can lead to the misguided iconoclasticism of “we don’t need experts, anymore” kind.

Michael Gove touched a populist nerve. Leading up to Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union, he delivered a soundbite that gained wide currency.Gove, then Lord Chancellor, declared: “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts…”

“I think the people of this country have had enough of experts” — Richard Portes, 2017 [4]

Why would we trust the “experts” now when they have been wrong before? One might equally ask the same of politicians…but economists don’t have the type of populist platform available to our politicos.

Gove’s was a political assessment, aimed at dismissing the consensus of opinion growing against the Brexit campaign and appealing to the populist belief that “they” are holding us back.

So not, in fact, an appeal to the secularisation of knowledge, in spite of the language used. Rather, a reversion to the paternalistic, pre-Scientific Revolution, “believe in me” call to faith.

Conclusions

“Unlike other institutions, however, science contains methods that over time correct its errors.”

John Gray 2020 [5]
  • Observation (what can I see?)
  • Hypothesis (how do I explain what I have seen?)
  • Experiment (is my hypothesis correct?)

From the Scientific Revolution emerged the scientific method as it is practiced today:

Most importantly, perhaps, if the hypothesis is disproven, the scientist doesn’t just give up — she looks for a new hypothesis to explain the observation, and investigates that.

And this, perhaps, is the great strength of the scientific method, and the greatest gift the early scientists have handed down to us today.

The secularisation of knowledge — by challenging faith-based understanding, the Scientific Revolution provided a blueprint for progress in science and beyond.

Now — what is the question?

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References

[1] H Butterfield, The Origins of Modern Science, 1949

[2] https://royalsociety.org/about-us/history/

[3] Duarte Araújo, Keith Davids, Robert Hristovski, 
The ecological dynamics of decision making in sport, Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Volume 7, Issue 6, 2006, Pages 653-676, 
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1469029206000665

[4] Richard Portes — “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”, Think at the London Business School, 09 May 2017 
https://www.london.edu/think/who-needs-experts

[5] John Gray — “The Year of the Great Humbling”, New Statesman, 11 December 2020 
https://www.newstatesman.com/international/places/2020/12/year-great-humbling

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Featured image: Tito Lessi — Galileo and Vivian; Museo Galileo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tito Lessi’s painting shows Galileo in old age with Vincenzo Viviani. After his condemnation in 1633, Galileo was confined to the villa Il Gioiello in Arcetri, where Viviani assisted him from 1639 until his death in 1642.

Source/Photographer https://catalogue.museogalileo.it/object/GalileoViviani.html

Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; All Stars Cricket Activator & Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire; ECB Coach Developer

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