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CLOSEMINDED SCIENCE

Examining the negative aspects of the social dynamics of science.

Skepticism is a primary tool of science. It would be hypocritical to never direct skepticism towards scientific skepticism itself. If the existence of our own imperfections and errors is denied, then they are free to grow without limit, and skepticism is not immune to this problem. Unbridled gullibility can destroy science, but unbridled skepticism is no less a threat because it brings both the excessive preservation of the status quo and the supression of new ideas. Better to take a middle road between total close-mindedness and total gullibility. Practice pragmatism, pursue humility, and maintain a hard, clear, honest, and continuing view of ourselves and the less noble of our behaviors.

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AGAINST EXCESSIVE SKEPTICISM

Collected Quotes

  "I am not very skeptical... a good deal of skepticism in a scientific man
  is advisable to avoid much loss of time, but I have met not a few men,
  who... have often thus been deterred from experiments or observations
  which would have proven servicable."   - Charles Darwin
 
 "Round about the accredited and orderly facts of every science there
  ever floats a sort of dust-cloud of exceptional observations, of
  occurrences minute and irregular and seldom met with, which it always
  proves more easy to ignore than to attend to... Anyone will renovate his
  science who will steadily look after the irregular phenomena, and when
  science is renewed, its new formulas often have more of the voice of the
  exceptions in them than of what were supposed to be the rules." 
    - William James

  "I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the
  greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most
  obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of
  conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which
  they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by
  thread, into the fabric of their lives."  -Tolstoy

  "It is really quite amazing by what margins competent but conservative
  scientists and engineers can miss the mark, when they start with the
  preconceived idea that what they are invesigating is impossible.  When
  this happens, the most well-informed men become blinded by their
  prejudices and are unable to see what lies directly ahead of them." 
   - Arthur C. Clarke, 1963

  "It is not uncommon for engineers to accept the reality of phenomena that
  are not yet understood, as it is very common for physicists to 
  disbelieve the reality of phenomena that seem to contradict contemporary 
  beliefs of physics" - H. Bauer

 "If a man is in too big a hurry to give up an error he is liable to 
  give up some truth with it."  - Wilbur Wright, 1902

 "It's like religion.  Heresy (in science) is though of as a bad thing,
  whereas it should be just the opposite."  - T. Gold

 "I believe there is no source of deception in the investigation of
  nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of
  phenomena are IMPOSSIBLE."  -William James

 "Almost all really new ideas have a certain aspect of foolishness when
  they are first produced."  - Alfred North Whitehead

 "It would seem to me... an offense against nature, for us to come on the
  same scene endowed as we are with the curiosity, filled to overbrimming
  as we are with questions, and naturally talented as we are for the
  asking of clear questions, and then for us to do nothing about or,
  worse, to try to suppress the questions..."  -Lewis Thomas

 "The creative person pays close attention to what appears discordant and
  contradictory... and is challenged by such irregularities."  - F. Barron

 "Genius in truth means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an
  unhabitual way"  - William James

 "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is
  possible, he is almost certainly right.  When he states that something
  is impossible, he is very probably wrong."
     - Arthur C. Clarke's First Law

 "There is no better soporific and sedative than skepticism." -Nietzche

 "It is as fatal as it is cowardly to blink facts because they are not to
  our taste."   - John Tyndall

 "The discovery of truth is prevented more effectively not by the false
  appearance of things present and which mislead into error, not directly
  by weakness of the reasoning powers, but by preconceived opinion, by
  prejudice."  - Schopenhauer

 "Now, my suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we
  suppose, but queerer than we can suppose... I suspect that there are
  more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, in any philosophy"
    - J.B.S Haldane

 "Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward; they may be defeated, but
  they start a winning game."  - Goethe

 "There is nothing particularly scientific about excessive caution.
  Science thrives on daring generalizations."  - L. Hogben

 "As long as we do science, some things will always remain unexplained."
   - Fritjof Capra

 "If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must
  leave the door to the unknown ajar."  -Richard Feynman

 "We do not understand much of anything, from... the "big bang" , all the
  way down to the particles in the atoms of a bacterial cell.  We have a
  wilderness of mystery to make our way through in the centuries ahead."
      -Lewis Thomas

 "There is no natural phenomenon that is comparable with the sudden
  and apparently accidentally timed development of science, except
  perhaps the condensation of a super-saturated gas or the explosion of
  some unpredictable explosives."  - Eugene P. Wigner

 "It is through science that we prove, but through intuition that we
  discover."  - H. Poincare

 "Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of
  nature." - Michael Faraday

 "I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any
  hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on
  every subject), as soon as the facts are shown to be opposed to it."
    - Darwin

  "I love fools' experiments, I am always making them."  -Darwin

  "The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next,
  and the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow."
  -Sir William Osler

 "The whole of science consists of data that, at one time or another, were
  inexplicable."  - B. O'Regan

 "The only solid piece of scientific truth about which I feel totally
  conficent is that we are profoundly ignorant about nature... It is this
  sudden confrontation with the depth and scope of ignorance that
  represents the most significant contribution of twentieth-century
  science to the human intellect." -Lewis Thomas

  "Sit down before facts like a child, and be prepared to give up every
   preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses
   Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing."  -T.H. Huxley

  "You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him find it within
  himself."  - Galileo

  "The high-minded man must care more for the truth than for what people
  think."  -Aristotle

  "In real life, every field of science is incomplete, and most of them 
  - whatever the record of accomplisment during the last 200 years - are
  still in their very earliest stages."  -Lewis Thomas

  "On any Tuesday morning, if asked, a good working scientist will tell
   you with some self-satisfaction that the affairs of his field are
   nicely in order, that things are finally looking clear and making
   sense, and all is well.  But come back again on another Tuesday, and
   the roof may have just fallen in on his life's work."  -Lewis Thomas

  "No matter how we may single out a complex from nature...its
  theoretical treatment will never prove to be ultimately
  conclusive...I believe that this process of deepening of theory has
  no limits."  - Albert Einstein, 1917

 "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and
  making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually
  die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."  -M. Planck

  Science advances funeral by funeral. (Planck?)

 "Science for me is very close to art.  Scientific discovery is an
  irrational act. It's an intuition which turns out to be reality at the
  end of it--and I see no difference between a scientist developing a
  marvellous discovery and an artist making a painting."  
    - C. Rubbia, Nobelist and CERN director

 "The person who thinks there can be any real conflict between science and
  religion must be either very young in science or very ignorant of
  religion."  -Joseph Henry, early American physicist

 "If you restrict the journal to publishing only what pleases the
  referees, you end up publishing what is popular, and while it does make
  everyone feel more comfortable, you are guaranteed to miss the
  occasional breakthrough."  - A. Dessler, Editor, Geophysical Research
  Letters, (regarding small-comet bombardment of Earth.)

 "Scientists are not the paragons of rationality, objectivity,
  openmindedness and humility that many of them might like others to
  believe."  - Marcello Truzzi, CSICOP

 "One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in
  contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers
  of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded
  and dull, but also just stupid."
            -- J. D. Watson  _The Double Helix_

 "When I examined myself and my methods of thought, I came to the
  conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent
  for absorbing positive knowledge."  - A. Einstein

 "A man with a new idea is a crank until he succeeds." - M. Twain

 "Don't worry about people stealing your ideas.  If your ideas are that
  good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats."  - Howard Aiken

 "Who never walks save where he sees men's tracks makes no discoveries."
   - J.G. Holland

  "Physical concepts are the free creations of the human mind and are not,
   however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world."
   Einstein/Infeld in "The Evolution of Physics" 1938

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  Never attribute to conspiracy that which is adequately explained by
  stupidity.

  Unnamed Law: If it happens, it must be possible.

  What I don't understand I despise, what I despise I reject.
  - THE REFEREE'S CREED

  "Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible."
  - Frank Zappa



QUOTES




SOME SKEPTICS OF THE PAST

  "So many centuries after the Creation, it is unlikely that anyone could
   find hitherto unknown lands of any value." 
      - Spanish Royal Commission, rejecting Christopher Columbus' proposal
        to sail west.

  "I would sooner believe that two Yankee professors lied, than that
   stones fell from the sky" - Thomas Jefferson, on hearing reports of
   meteorites.

 "The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have
  all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the
  possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new
  discoveries is exceedingly remote.... Our future discoveries must be
  looked for in the sixth place of decimals."  -Albert. A. Michelson,
      speech given in 1894 at the dedication of Ryerson Physics Lab, 
      Univ. of Chicago,

  "Space travel is utter bilge!"  -Sir Richard Van Der Riet Wolley,
  astronomer

 "The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]...presents
  difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss
  the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author's 
  insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed
  impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually
  accomplished."
     -Sir Richard van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E.
      Cleator's "Rockets in Space", Nature, March 14, 1936 

  "It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane, which two
  or three years ago were thought to hold the solution to the  [flying
  machine] problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere."
     - Thomas Edison, 1895

  "Such startling announcements as these should be deprecated as being
  unworthy of science and mischievious to to its true progress" 
     - Sir William Siemens, 1880, on Edison's announcement of a 
       sucessful light bulb.

  "We are probably nearing the limit of all we can know about astronomy."
      - Simon Newcomb, astronomer, 1888

  "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." - Lord Kelvin, 
   president, Royal Society, 1895.

  "The demonstration that no possible combination of known substances,
   known forms of machinery, and known forms of force can be united in a
   practicable machine by which men shall fly for long distances through
   the air, seems to the writer as complete as it is possible for the
   demonstration of any physical fact to be."  - astronomer S. Newcomb,
   1906

  "Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and 
   reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against 
   which to react.  He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily 
   in high schools." - 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert 
   Goddard's revolutionary rocket work.

   "This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd
   lengths to which vicious specialisation will carry scientists." 
     -A.W. Bickerton, physicist, NZ, 1926

   "Space travel is bunk" -Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of
    Britain, 1957, two weeks before the launch of Sputnik




Bill B's own sayings:

  The banner of "Openmindedness" attracts charlatans and gullible fools,
  just as the banner of "skepticism" attracts the narrow-minded and the
  bigoted.  This is no reason for the skeptical scientist to assume
  openmindedness to equate with foolish gullibility, nor for the
  openminded scientist to assume all skeptics to be narrow-minded bigots.


REFERENCES

  Spacevoyages

  The Mind of God and Other Musings:  The Wisdom of Science, 
  Shirley Jones, ed.    isbn 1880032481

  ...and the .sig files of numberless internet users with a bent towards
  both science and wisdom.



Created and maintained by Bill Beaty. Mail me at: billb@eskimo.com.
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