Monday, May 15, 2017

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light

An interesting discussion without resolution. William Beaty prepares a list of scientists and scientific studies which were initially not pursued, ridiculed, or actively resisted. Everyone will have definitional issues as to which scientists or discoveries qualify, but that is, from my point of view, primarily an issue of definitions.
Beaty's list is topped by:
Scott Alexander, the excellent blogger at Slate Star Codex, responds with a degree of skepticism about the value of such lists and who should belong on them.

Beatty then comes back with a counter-argument, conceding some of Alexander's points, clarifying and modifying his least to some degree.

There is some back-and-forth as to what constitutes the duration of meaningful resistance. If the institutions of science self-correct within thirty years, is that sufficiently alacritous? Twenty years? Ten years? What would we wish? Too quickly, and you are chasing every fad. Too slowly and people suffer or beneficial decisions are postponed.

Regardless of the resolution of the particular names, I do think there is benefit to the debate. Not just in the clarification of terms and measures, but in the shared acknowledgement that science does progress but it does also, not infrequently, take detours away from the "Truth." In this context, I like Max Planck's comment on scientific stasis - "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." Or, more colorfully, "Science advances one funeral at a time."

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