Sunday, December 26, 2010

The march of Science!

Missed this last month, but still worth a look. An online periodical called, edgily, Edge: The Third Culture, asked a bunch of more-or-less prominent ginks, "The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?"

A surprising number of respondents (many of them non-scientists, by the way) cited the theory that stress (the hurly-burly of modern life and all that) caused ulcers. Other faves were the ether; the miasmic theory of disease; eugenics; intelligent design; Lamarckian inheritance; and spontaneous generation.

My own favorite response was from a Garniss Curtis, "Geochronologist Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley; Coauthor, Java Man":
For years I believed the Government's insistence that UFO's did not exist until I saw one under circumstances that could leave no doubt. Subsequently over many years I have seen three more. Being a scientist and professor at U.C. Berkeley, I quizzed many graduate students, asking them if they think they have seen UFO's would they come to my office and tell me about them. To my surprise, several of them did, and some went on to teach at various universities such as CalTech, and Johns Hopkins. They found, as I have, if a person hasn't seen one, he/she won't believe you. I have convinced only one scientist, and this was by giving him two excellent books on the subject which he read carefully, He came to me and said, "I am now a believer, but why this government secrecy?" I replied that I didn't know but that it must be extremely important to some branch of the government in the military.
Wonder what those two books were?

Some of the suggestions are actually interesting, but really the only reason I bring this piece up is that of the 65 respondents, not a single one mentions the humongous, maggoty, stenched-out elephant in the room. Need a hint? Its initials are A. G. W. One guy, Paul Kedrosky, maybe sorta hints at it:
My favorite example is about science itself. For the longest time scientists didn't believe that their own discipline followed rules, per se, but then Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper and, my favorite, Paul Feyerabend showed how science was sociology, was prone to enthusiasms, fashions, and dogma, and so on. It was one of the most important realizations of my doctoral program.
But apparently it doesn't happen anymore.

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