Leaps in the dark

On the 28th and 29th of June, 2005, while suffering from a fever, I read

Title: Leaps in the dark
Author: John Waller
ISBN: 0-19-280484-7

which I purchased in Cambridge around mid-winter 2004, probably from the CUP's book-shop. If I remember correctly, it had been recommended by New Scientist's book reviews section.

It is fascinating to see propaganda dissected and a devil's advocate's answer to hagiography. Waller succinctly reports the orthodox accounts of various past scientists' contributions – both those ridiculed by more recent orthodoxy and those proclaimed as heroes. In each case, he goes on to explain what more critical historical scholarship has found of the events – and of how subsequent history came to distort them.

Several figures vilified by later orthodoxy he rehabilitates – though not all. Of Semmelweis' one-time boss and persecutor, after repudiating much of what has been held against him and revealing what still falls to his blame, Waller says: Klein amply deserves his reputation as a poor scientist and an individual utterly unworthy of rehabilitation. Many others, however, are revealed as sensible scientists acting reasonably within the context of the ideas of their times.

Those whom history has tended to flatter are correspondingly – though, in most cases humanely – deflated. Their peers' (and, in the case of Lind, famous for showing citrus fruits's efficacy against scurvy, his own) grounds for being less than enthusiastic about their ideas are shown to be (in their context) rational – and, in some cases, correct – while the melodramas later story-tellers have woven around them are stripped away.

It is easy to see a common thread, in Waller's accounts, of contempt for those who – usually without adequate effort to consult primary sources and discover the reality – have wilfully exaggerated in order to make a good story where the facts of the matter are more ambivalent. Even so, he avoids being judgemental – his account of nineteenth century psychiatrists, re-writing the history of two of their fore-runners, provides fine examples. Of Bourneville's myth-making about Weyer: Some would exonerate Bourneville on the grounds that tampering with the historical record helped to release mental illness from the grip of superstition. But, a century on, that battle has been won, and it's now important that the record should be set right. Of those who re-invented Pinel in order to promote the medical over the pastoral care of the insane: With their professional existence at stake, not for the first time, necessity became the mother of delusion and circularity the lifebuoy of the desperate.

In general this book is a marvelous antidote not only to the particular myths it addresses but also to the folly of those who would claim that science is either an ultimate touch-stone of truth (as opposed to an excellent family of highly effective working hypotheses) or merely a social construct valid only in the compass of its natal culture. Waller shows very eloquently the extent to which science (or natural philosophy as he quite appropriately terms it, given his subjects) genuinely has carried the baggage of its natal culture (so we would be fools to suppose it does not, still): but, equally, highlights how the wheels of research – if anything more so than those of justice – may grind mighty slow, yet do have a real claim to drive ever closer to something we may fairly call truth. Although the cultural baggage may slow the adoption of ideas alien to it, none the less it is the baggage, not the ideas, that ultimately gets abandonned when the evidence favours the latter over the former.

A quibble - on the origins of science

In his conclusion, Waller asserts

… having just emerged from years of bloody internecine conflict, the English social elites of the 1650s had little appetite for further conflict. So they devised a method for doing science, based on experiment and collective witnessing, that aimed to maximize consensus and reduce the probability of debate degenerating into ugly feuding.

While I accept that the early natural philosophers were greatly concerned with consensus among witnesses, and can well believe the civil war (and, perhaps more so, the interregnum) left the Royal Society's members acutely shy of conflict (though one has but to think of Huygens, Hooke, Newton and Leibniz to realize they were not all that shy of it), I am unpersuaded by Waller's implicit causal link. Though I must confess I am speculating, it seems to me far more likely that the scientific method emerged from the anglic system of public trial by jury.

Written by Eddy.
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