Humility in science

Humility in science October 9, 2018


Edelfelt's Pasteur
Louis Pasteur in his Paris laboratory, ca. 1885 (by Albert Edelfelt)
Wikimedia Commons public domain


These unpublished notes are focused on science.  But they shouldn’t be taken as singling science out for unique censure.  All human enterprises are fallible.  Science is actually, on the whole, pretty good at correcting itself — though not quite as good as some devotees of scientism imagine.


A note on humility.

There is no question that modern science, since, say, the days of Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton, has been staggeringly successful.  Its achievements have been astonishing.  It is one of the greatest enterprises of humankind, and richly merits our admiration.

We are all aware, of course, that science has a history.  Before Copernicus, for example, everybody believed that the earth was the center of the universe.  George Washington probably died because of the leeches that his physician attached to him, in a very up-to-date medical effort to lower his fever [?] through bleeding.  Lamarckianism gave way to Darwinism, which has been modified to various forms of neo-Darwinism.  Newtonian physics has been revised by relativity and quantum theory.

In recent years, contrary to what the biology textbooks led everybody to expect, scientist have found colonies of microbes thriving near hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean.  Water, superheated by rising magma and laden with toxic substances like hydrogen, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and hydrogen sulfide, spews forth at temperatures rising up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit.  Microbial DNA has been located two miles below the Antarctic ice cap. Living creatures have been found in solid rock at the bottom of deep mines, in brine pools that are five times as salty as the ocean, in volcanic rock twelve hundred feet below the sea floor.  Where all living organisms were, until recently, thought to depend either directly or indirectly upon the energy of the sun (via photosynthesis, or eating things that live by photosynthesis, or eating things that eat things that live by photosynthesis), organisms have now been discovered that living off of sulfide, methane, iron, manganese, and hydrogen.

But let’s take a very down-to-earth branch of science, nutrition.  We have recently learned that butter may be better for us than stick margarine.  Eggs may not be bad for us, after all.  Diet fashions seem to change like the seasons.  In psychiatry, the lives of many patients were destroyed by lobotomies and shock therapy—therapeutic techniques that are now so far out of fashion that we can scarcely imagine a time when they were (but they most definitely were) the preferred methods of dealing with several mental health problems.  Just a few decades ago, virtually every kid had a tonsillectomy.  That was just part of growing up, at least in America.  Yet we now understand that tonsillectomies are mostly unnecessary, and can be worse than useless.  We used to know that ulcers were caused by stress, or by excess stomach acid.  Now we know that most ulcers are caused by a bacterium known as Helicobacter pylori or by the use of aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.  If there was anything absolutely sure in medical education, it was the fact that the mean human body temperature was 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.  Everybody knew it, not just doctors.  However, in 1992, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in which scientists actually measured the mean human body temperature, and it turned out to be 98.2 degrees.[1]  So what’s the source of the figure 98.6?  A German physician by the name of Carl Wunderlich came up with it in 1868, and nobody had bothered to check it since then.

[1] Source?



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