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Wanted: Another Scientific Revolution

In the 19th century, four friends changed the way scientists viewed themselves. It’s time for another shake-up.

By | May 26, 2011

BROADWAY BOOKS 2011When H.M.S. Beagle set sail from Plymouth Sound on December 27, 1831, the ship’s young naturalist, Charles Darwin, was a self-proclaimed “natural philosopher.” By the time he disembarked the ship about five years later, he was a “scientist”—a word invented in the intervening years by fellow Cambridge University alum and polymath William Whewell.

Much else had changed as well. Whewell and a group of his friends had begun to modernize the concept of the natural philosopher, a project first hatched in 1812, when they met as undergraduates at Cambridge University

Each of the four men was brilliant, self-assured, and possessed of the optimism of the age: Whewell, who later created the fields of mathematical economics and the science of the tides; Charles Babbage, a mathematical genius who would invent the prototype of the first modern computer; John Herschel, who mapped the skies of the Southern hemisphere and coinvented photography; and Richard Jones, a curate who went on to shape economic science. The four composed what I call the “Philosophical Breakfast Club,” also the title of my latest book, which chronicles the way they transformed the “man of science” into the professional scientist.

At “Philosophical Breakfasts” held on Sundays after compulsory chapel services, the four students cast their young, critical eyes over science as it was then practiced, and found it wanting. They pledged to bring about nothing less than a scientific revolution—and in large part they succeeded.

Because of these men, science was transformed from the province of the amateur—the clergyman collecting fossils or beetles in his spare hours, or the wealthy gentleman conducting electrical experiments at his country estate—to the career of the professional: trained at the university, published in specialized journals, and admitted to associations open only to fellow professionals.

Darwin’s career was thus framed by the revolution brought about by these men. But he was also influenced more directly by the members of the Philosophical Breakfast Club. At Cambridge from 1828 to 1831, Darwin attended John Henslow’s botany lectures with Whewell, who—probably during their strolls to the class—suggested that Darwin read his friend Herschel’s new book, A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, which appeared the month that Darwin was taking the exams necessary to complete his degree.

Herschel’s book, aimed at a popular audience, promoted Francis Bacon’s inductive, evidence-based scientific method. “Scarcely anything in my life made so deep an impression on me” as the book, Darwin later wrote to Herschel. “It made me wish to try to add my mite to the accumulated store of natural knowledge.” In short, it sparked Darwin’s transformation from amateur naturalist into scientist.

One of the unintended consequences of the revolution wrought by the Philosophical Breakfast Club has been that the professional scientist is now less interested in, and perhaps less capable of, connecting with the broader public, sharing the new discoveries and theories that most excite the scientific community. Although there are some notable exceptions, today’s researcher has been less adept than the Victorian-era natural philosopher at engaging the public—and this estranged the general public from science. In part this is because the scientific establishment discourages its members from writing popular books and articles, considering these projects unserious, even frivolous, diversions from the real work of research. But this attitude has to change in order to mend the ever-deepening rift between science and the rest of modern culture. Today’s scientist should strive to be more like the 19th-century natural philosopher—ironically, more like those very men who created the modern scientist.

An expert on Victorian science and culture, Fulbright scholar Laura J. Snyder served as president of the International Society for the History of Philosophy of Science in 2009 and 2010. She is associate professor of philosophy at St. John’s University, in New York City, and also the author of Reforming Philosophy: A Victorian Debate on Science and Society. Read an excerpt from her new book, Chapter 8--"A Divine Programmer."

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Avatar of: jeenious

Anonymous

June 17, 2011

If those whose profession is in the sciences, and those whose profession is not in the sciences, would have a mutual attitude adjustment, whereby each would say he or she is certain only when he is certain, would say, "It is my empirically untestable opinio is (whatever) when his or her opinion is untestable, would say, "My interpretation of currently available data I am aware of is (whatever) when expressing his or her interpretation... many of the bones of contention would become moot.

No scientifically literate person who is honest with self and others, should circle the wagons around a consensus to the extent of becoming angry when disagreed with.

An attitude among some (not all) who work and teach in the sciences, that they make the rules, and by those rules they have a license to be right about things they cannot prove or disprove for a certainty, would piss off everybody else, if that attitude were adopted by anybody -- lawyer, mathematician, philosopher, economist, literary critic, historian, military strategist, chef...

Ah, yes, a chef. 

Some of us, if we go to a winery and are handed a sample that tastes to us like vinegar, enjoys being told it is not the sample that falls short of perfection, but only our lack of appreciation for what wine should taste like.

But, then, it seems to be human nature, on average at least, that one who works and studies long and hard to master a subject, resents being told the product of his toil and wisdom are displeasing to the crude unwashed pedestrian riff raff outside our
small circle of mutual admirers.

Avatar of: Ramin Honary

Anonymous

June 17, 2011

Re: "...the scientific establishment discourages its members from writing popular books and articles, considering these projects unserious, even frivolous, diversions from the real work of research." I am a bit surprised at this assertion, and I wonder what makes Snyder believe this to be true. Several notable scientists have become popular precisely because they have concentrated on publishing books targeted towards popular audiences -- chiefly Stephen Hawking. I wonder, how much he was discouraged from writing "A Brief History of Time", and are other scientists similarly discouraged?
I believe the problem is the entertainment industry's profit motive: focus as many eyes on their advertisers as possible. The winning (most profitable) TV shows, movies, internet broadcasts, focus on pleasing the lowest common denominator, so there is no room for informative scientific content. Fortunately now, the Internet provides a medium for more intellectual content, that can be viewed at the whim of the viewer's curiosity.

I think the problem is, not enough scientists take the Internet seriously enough as a medium for communicating, and capturing the popular imagination. It is rare to find someone who devotes much time or energy in publicizing their work for mass consumption over a video blog or an interactive online game. This is a real problem.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

June 17, 2011

Re: "...the scientific establishment discourages its members from writing popular books and articles, considering these projects unserious, even frivolous, diversions from the real work of research." I am a bit surprised at this assertion, and I wonder what makes Snyder believe this to be true. Several notable scientists have become popular precisely because they have concentrated on publishing books targeted towards popular audiences -- chiefly Stephen Hawking. I wonder, how much he was discouraged from writing "A Brief History of Time", and are other scientists similarly discouraged?
I believe the problem is the entertainment industry's profit motive: focus as many eyes on their advertisers as possible. The winning (most profitable) TV shows, movies, internet broadcasts, focus on pleasing the lowest common denominator, so there is no room for informative scientific content. Fortunately now, the Internet provides a medium for more intellectual content, that can be viewed at the whim of the viewer's curiosity.

I think the problem is, not enough scientists take the Internet seriously enough as a medium for communicating, and capturing the popular imagination. It is rare to find someone who devotes much time or energy in publicizing their work for mass consumption over a video blog or an interactive online game. This is a real problem.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

June 17, 2011

If those whose profession is in the sciences, and those whose profession is not in the sciences, would have a mutual attitude adjustment, whereby each would say he or she is certain only when he is certain, would say, "It is my empirically untestable opinio is (whatever) when his or her opinion is untestable, would say, "My interpretation of currently available data I am aware of is (whatever) when expressing his or her interpretation... many of the bones of contention would become moot.

No scientifically literate person who is honest with self and others, should circle the wagons around a consensus to the extent of becoming angry when disagreed with.

An attitude among some (not all) who work and teach in the sciences, that they make the rules, and by those rules they have a license to be right about things they cannot prove or disprove for a certainty, would piss off everybody else, if that attitude were adopted by anybody -- lawyer, mathematician, philosopher, economist, literary critic, historian, military strategist, chef...

Ah, yes, a chef. 

Some of us, if we go to a winery and are handed a sample that tastes to us like vinegar, enjoys being told it is not the sample that falls short of perfection, but only our lack of appreciation for what wine should taste like.

But, then, it seems to be human nature, on average at least, that one who works and studies long and hard to master a subject, resents being told the product of his toil and wisdom are displeasing to the crude unwashed pedestrian riff raff outside our
small circle of mutual admirers.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

June 17, 2011

If those whose profession is in the sciences, and those whose profession is not in the sciences, would have a mutual attitude adjustment, whereby each would say he or she is certain only when he is certain, would say, "It is my empirically untestable opinio is (whatever) when his or her opinion is untestable, would say, "My interpretation of currently available data I am aware of is (whatever) when expressing his or her interpretation... many of the bones of contention would become moot.

No scientifically literate person who is honest with self and others, should circle the wagons around a consensus to the extent of becoming angry when disagreed with.

An attitude among some (not all) who work and teach in the sciences, that they make the rules, and by those rules they have a license to be right about things they cannot prove or disprove for a certainty, would piss off everybody else, if that attitude were adopted by anybody -- lawyer, mathematician, philosopher, economist, literary critic, historian, military strategist, chef...

Ah, yes, a chef. 

Some of us, if we go to a winery and are handed a sample that tastes to us like vinegar, enjoys being told it is not the sample that falls short of perfection, but only our lack of appreciation for what wine should taste like.

But, then, it seems to be human nature, on average at least, that one who works and studies long and hard to master a subject, resents being told the product of his toil and wisdom are displeasing to the crude unwashed pedestrian riff raff outside our
small circle of mutual admirers.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

June 17, 2011

Re: "...the scientific establishment discourages its members from writing popular books and articles, considering these projects unserious, even frivolous, diversions from the real work of research." I am a bit surprised at this assertion, and I wonder what makes Snyder believe this to be true. Several notable scientists have become popular precisely because they have concentrated on publishing books targeted towards popular audiences -- chiefly Stephen Hawking. I wonder, how much he was discouraged from writing "A Brief History of Time", and are other scientists similarly discouraged?
I believe the problem is the entertainment industry's profit motive: focus as many eyes on their advertisers as possible. The winning (most profitable) TV shows, movies, internet broadcasts, focus on pleasing the lowest common denominator, so there is no room for informative scientific content. Fortunately now, the Internet provides a medium for more intellectual content, that can be viewed at the whim of the viewer's curiosity.

I think the problem is, not enough scientists take the Internet seriously enough as a medium for communicating, and capturing the popular imagination. It is rare to find someone who devotes much time or energy in publicizing their work for mass consumption over a video blog or an interactive online game. This is a real problem.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

June 19, 2011

Worthy of being said again:

"No scientifically literate person who is honest with self and others,
should circle the wagons around a consensus to the extent of becoming
angry when disagreed with."

I would take it further and state that to become angered with any stranger online is even more senseless. It only speaks to the angered one's pathology, not to any point in the discussion.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

June 19, 2011

It hasn't been helped by the fact that at the start of the nineteenth century a uniquely American form of a hostility to intellect broke out like a bad virus. Apparently some branches of Christianity consider science a threat.

It pains me as a conservative to note this archaic hostility has been largely carried into present day by the political right.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

June 19, 2011

Worthy of being said again:

"No scientifically literate person who is honest with self and others,
should circle the wagons around a consensus to the extent of becoming
angry when disagreed with."

I would take it further and state that to become angered with any stranger online is even more senseless. It only speaks to the angered one's pathology, not to any point in the discussion.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

June 19, 2011

It hasn't been helped by the fact that at the start of the nineteenth century a uniquely American form of a hostility to intellect broke out like a bad virus. Apparently some branches of Christianity consider science a threat.

It pains me as a conservative to note this archaic hostility has been largely carried into present day by the political right.

Avatar of: Guest

Anonymous

June 19, 2011

Worthy of being said again:

"No scientifically literate person who is honest with self and others,
should circle the wagons around a consensus to the extent of becoming
angry when disagreed with."

I would take it further and state that to become angered with any stranger online is even more senseless. It only speaks to the angered one's pathology, not to any point in the discussion.

Avatar of: Guest

Anonymous

June 19, 2011

It hasn't been helped by the fact that at the start of the nineteenth century a uniquely American form of a hostility to intellect broke out like a bad virus. Apparently some branches of Christianity consider science a threat.

It pains me as a conservative to note this archaic hostility has been largely carried into present day by the political right.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

June 23, 2011

Well, you don't get paid for it, so it's not professional. 

Avatar of: Jerry R

Anonymous

June 23, 2011

Well, you don't get paid for it, so it's not professional. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

June 23, 2011

Well, you don't get paid for it, so it's not professional. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

July 7, 2011

Ramin, I believe what the author is referring to is what in the US is called the "Carl Sagan effect."  He was not admitted to the National Academy of Sciences in spite of his great intellect and contributions to the field and some say it was because of bitterness by colleagues at his fame for being a 'popularizer of science.'  She is not imagining this assertion as the topic is regularly discussed at science conferences among those who would like to write/talk for the public but are deeply concerned about the negative impact on their career advancements.

In a conversation about the discouragement of public outreach, a senior scientist  I know said it was absolutely true in his era but he sees it slowly changing, getting more accepted with each generation.  However, there's still a deterrent effect present.  I keep looking for someone who will write that popular book for the public who doesn't already have tenure.  Haven't found it yet. 

Avatar of: Monica Metzler

Anonymous

July 7, 2011

Ramin, I believe what the author is referring to is what in the US is called the "Carl Sagan effect."  He was not admitted to the National Academy of Sciences in spite of his great intellect and contributions to the field and some say it was because of bitterness by colleagues at his fame for being a 'popularizer of science.'  She is not imagining this assertion as the topic is regularly discussed at science conferences among those who would like to write/talk for the public but are deeply concerned about the negative impact on their career advancements.

In a conversation about the discouragement of public outreach, a senior scientist  I know said it was absolutely true in his era but he sees it slowly changing, getting more accepted with each generation.  However, there's still a deterrent effect present.  I keep looking for someone who will write that popular book for the public who doesn't already have tenure.  Haven't found it yet. 

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

July 7, 2011

Ramin, I believe what the author is referring to is what in the US is called the "Carl Sagan effect."  He was not admitted to the National Academy of Sciences in spite of his great intellect and contributions to the field and some say it was because of bitterness by colleagues at his fame for being a 'popularizer of science.'  She is not imagining this assertion as the topic is regularly discussed at science conferences among those who would like to write/talk for the public but are deeply concerned about the negative impact on their career advancements.

In a conversation about the discouragement of public outreach, a senior scientist  I know said it was absolutely true in his era but he sees it slowly changing, getting more accepted with each generation.  However, there's still a deterrent effect present.  I keep looking for someone who will write that popular book for the public who doesn't already have tenure.  Haven't found it yet. 

Avatar of: emyrtlemartin

emyrtlemartin

Posts: 5

July 7, 2011

Hardly uniquely American--The Origin of Species led to widespread Anglican opposition, enough to convince Victoria not to knight him. And there was plenty of Christian opposition elsewhere in Europe. although perhaps America is unique in having a large, well-organized rear-guard opposed to evolutionary theory.
And don't feel too bad--the same PEW poll in 2007 that showed nearly 70% of Republicans "disbelieved in evolution" also showed that 40% of Democrats and Independents "disbelieved" as well; Small-l libertarians tend to score higher on the evolution side (Ron Paul notwithstanding).

Avatar of: Guest

Anonymous

July 7, 2011

I beg to differ. A hostility to intellect that remains active in modern times is very much uniquely American. You site Victorian opposition to science but offer no proof it grew to a "rear guard" as you put it in the UK (and since it did not there or anywhere else, it makes what occurred in the US unique to Western democracies) .

Your partisan stats simply show that a willingness to place faith above science contaminates both parties but one clearly more so than the other  ---- thereby backing my claim that there is a hostility largely carried by the political right in present time. Add to it who believes in that monstrosity, the inerrant Bible, and we'll see even higher percentages on the right.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

July 7, 2011

Hardly uniquely American--The Origin of Species led to widespread Anglican opposition, enough to convince Victoria not to knight him. And there was plenty of Christian opposition elsewhere in Europe. although perhaps America is unique in having a large, well-organized rear-guard opposed to evolutionary theory.
And don't feel too bad--the same PEW poll in 2007 that showed nearly 70% of Republicans "disbelieved in evolution" also showed that 40% of Democrats and Independents "disbelieved" as well; Small-l libertarians tend to score higher on the evolution side (Ron Paul notwithstanding).

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

July 7, 2011

I beg to differ. A hostility to intellect that remains active in modern times is very much uniquely American. You site Victorian opposition to science but offer no proof it grew to a "rear guard" as you put it in the UK (and since it did not there or anywhere else, it makes what occurred in the US unique to Western democracies) .

Your partisan stats simply show that a willingness to place faith above science contaminates both parties but one clearly more so than the other  ---- thereby backing my claim that there is a hostility largely carried by the political right in present time. Add to it who believes in that monstrosity, the inerrant Bible, and we'll see even higher percentages on the right.

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

July 7, 2011

Hardly uniquely American--The Origin of Species led to widespread Anglican opposition, enough to convince Victoria not to knight him. And there was plenty of Christian opposition elsewhere in Europe. although perhaps America is unique in having a large, well-organized rear-guard opposed to evolutionary theory.
And don't feel too bad--the same PEW poll in 2007 that showed nearly 70% of Republicans "disbelieved in evolution" also showed that 40% of Democrats and Independents "disbelieved" as well; Small-l libertarians tend to score higher on the evolution side (Ron Paul notwithstanding).

Avatar of:

Posts: 0

July 7, 2011

I beg to differ. A hostility to intellect that remains active in modern times is very much uniquely American. You site Victorian opposition to science but offer no proof it grew to a "rear guard" as you put it in the UK (and since it did not there or anywhere else, it makes what occurred in the US unique to Western democracies) .

Your partisan stats simply show that a willingness to place faith above science contaminates both parties but one clearly more so than the other  ---- thereby backing my claim that there is a hostility largely carried by the political right in present time. Add to it who believes in that monstrosity, the inerrant Bible, and we'll see even higher percentages on the right.

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