Thursday, August 11, 2005


Most institutions demand unqualified faith; but the institution of science makes skepticism a virtue. -- Robert King Merton, sociologist (1910-2003) I find this quote very interesting because this virtue of which Merton writes -- skepticism -- has a dual edge. Yes, healthy skepticism is instrumental in weeding out junk science and discounting fantastic claims. But skepticism can also hold back acceptance of revolutionizing ideas. I don't have a specific example right now, although if I recall correctly, the development of geology as a field of study should be rife with examples. I'll come back and post one later. But I can at least recommend a few books right now that have ample examples of how politics and even human nature can warp healthy skepticsm:
  • Muddling Through: Pursuing Science and Truths in the Twenty-First Century -- Herbert J. Bernstein, Mike Fortun [Book Review with Amazon Link]


Paul said...

The example I cite most frequently is the guys who discovered h. pylori and its link to stomach ulcers. They were nearly rode out of town on a rail with their theory; it was accepted medical science that "stress" somehow caused ulcers and not a bacterial infection.

20 + years later there are still some in the medical profession who don't "believe in" h. pylori.

Josh Friedman said...

The best example from geology that I can think of is Alfred Wegener's continental drift theory, which he first proposed in the 1920's, I believe (maybe the 1930's?). He was mocked and practically driven out of the profession. Many, many years after he died, his theory took hold and developed into the theory of plate tectonics, which is now considered the 'unified theory' of geology and the driving force of most geological processes. There are still skeptics - in particular, check the writings of Donald Barr. Unfortunately, I don't remember any titles right now - and I have some of his books. Also, there's John McPhee's "In Suspect Terrane", about another geologist who has doubts about plate tectonics. (The word "terrane" is spelled correctly - it is a geological term.)

brainwise said...

Josh, that's one of the example I was trying to remember. And it is covered in Bill Bryon's book. The geo-sciences seem to be littered with interesting people whose ideas were quite literally ahead of their times ... and several of them did not live to see their ideas vindicated.