Scientific Modesty

Recently, Intelligent Design versus Evolution has been a hot topic in both the legacy media and the blogs. It is a subject in which I have been interested for some time. I am especially intrigued by the relationship between Information Theory, Complexity Theory, and the origin of the biological information contained in genes.

In this post, however, I want to discuss the problem of scientific modesty—or the problem of the lack thereof.

I have previously posted on the neglected literary merits of the marvelous book Flatland, by Edwin Abbot. In its dedication, the book’s fictional, two-dimensional narrator says that the book was published in the hope that it would contribute ”…To the Enlargement of THE IMAGINATION And the possible Development Of that most rare and excellent Gift of MODESTY Among the Superior Races Of SOLID HUMANITY.”

Modesty, in this sense, refers humility resulting from circumspection regarding our own limitations. It is this kind of modesty that science so often seems to lack.

During the 19th Century, many scientists felt that they finally understood basically everything there was to know about our universe. Over the previous few centuries they had developed a consistent model of the universe that appeared to apply universally. It was taken for granted that theoretical concepts like the universal luminiferous aether were simply fact. Even though its existence had not yet been demonstrated, it was certain to exist by reasonable induction from the known facts of the universe.

In 1887, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley formulated an experiment that would demonstrate the fact of the aether. The experiment backfired and ended up throwing the entire theory of the Ether into turmoil. Neither Michelson or Morley accepted the implications of the results of their experiment and Edward Morley spent the next twenty years or so trying to produce an experiment that would vindicate the theory. Meanwhile, others rejected the theory and it was eventually replaced with Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

In 1895, Rontgen discovered X-rays. Henri Becquerel discovered Radioactivity in 1896. And Joseph Thomson discovered the electron in 1897. Within a few short years the beautiful models that had been built up over centuries and were accepted as fact became, suddenly, insufficient.

It is interesting that Flatland was published in 1884—its allegorical exhortation to modesty strikingly apt for the impending shift in science.

Category: science
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