[. . .]McEwan then goes on to show how our beliefs about science appear to be in contradiction to the way it is practiced by scientists. Scientists accept many things to be true even without concrete proof.
Perhaps it was the greatest invention of all, greater than that of the wheel or agriculture, this slow elaboration of a thought system, science, that has disproof at its heart and self correction as its essential procedure.
Only recently, over this past half millennium, has some significant part of humankind begun to dispense with the kinds of insights supposedly revealed by supernatural entities, and to support instead a vast and disparate mental enterprise that works by accretion, dispute, refinement and occasional radical challenges.
[. . .]
Here's the gist of what he says:
Most of us laypeople hold firmly to the belief that scientists do not believe what they cannot prove. How does then one square this belief with the fact that a number of discoveries and breakthroughs in scientific thought were the result of wild hunches and sudden intuitive connections. Einstein's theory of general relativity was proved many years after it was propounded. Yet it had found virtually immediate general acceptance. Kekule had a dream of a snake eating its tail and that gave him a clue to the structure of benzene.
Scientists, it seems, believe many a thing to be true even though they have no proof of it.
Appears to be a paradox doesn't it? Science demands stringent proof for anything. Yet, its denizens accept quite a bit without any hard proof and rely a lot on intuition in their work.
But there's, of course, an answer to this paradox. Ian McEwan quotes Nobel laureate Leon Lederman - "To believe something while knowing it cannot be proved (yet) is the essence of physics," and concludes that the "spirit of a scientific consciousness at its best - [is] informed guesswork that is open-minded, free-ranging, intellectually playful."
Ian McEwan explains this paradox in his introductory essay to What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty. This book is a collection of responses by working scientists to the question "What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" posed to them by John Brockman, a literary agent and publisher of The Edge website.
You can read an extract from the introduction here: Is science driven by inspired guesswork?