WHEN 'SCIENCINESS' IS THE ENEMY OF ACTUAL SCIENCE

[ Sat. Nov. 27. 2010 ]

If you were a sophisticated and up-to-the-minute science buff in 17th century Europe, you knew that there was only one properly scientific way to explain anything: "the direct contact-action of matter pushing on matter," (as Peter Dear puts it The Intelligibility of Nature). Superstitious hayseeds thought that one object could influence another without a chain of physical contact, but that was so last century by 1680. Medieval physics had been rife with such notions; modern thought had cast those demons out. To you, then, Newton's theory of gravity looked like a step backwards. It held that the sun influenced the Earth without touching it, even via other objects. At the time, that just sounded less "sciencey" than the theories it eventually replaced.

This came to mind the other day because, over at Edge.org, Richard H. Thaler asked people to nominate examples of "wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods." He also asked us to suggest a reason that our nominee held sway for too long. ...