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Gerald Holton Guest Editor’s Introduction AT FIRST BLUSH, “SCIENCE” AND “ERROR” SEEM TO BE POLAR OPPOSITES— the one a heroic pursuit of provable and widely sharable truths, the other a miserable exemplar of human frailty. The very definition of the two terms mirrors that polarity, with the august OxfordEnglishDictionary declaring science to be “knowledge acquired by study; acquaintance with or mastery of any department of learning.” Error is defined as “the holding of mistaken notions or beliefs” and, the OEDadds, solemnly, “a departure from moral rectitude; a transgression, wrong doing.” Even viewed historically, the two concepts have long dwelled in opposite quadrants of respectability. The exposure, especially in the early seven­ teenth century, that ancient wisdom was riddled with fundamental flaws, provided the warrant for newborn science to grow soon into a veritable juggernaut—as elegantly set forth in the first of the essays in this volume. That success led many scientists and philosophers, especially in Germany, to a view of their calling, cresting in the first half of the nineteenth century but persevering much longer, which amounted to a quasi-religious amplification of science, a form of sacralization. At its height it was said explicitly to endow scientists with the role of “priests of nature,” laboring in the “Temple of Science,” where they worked on the tem ple’s completion so as to make it representative of the scientific model of the world itself. That self-imposed service was generally traced back metaphorically to the demands of the tem ple’s chief goddess, Isis, the m other of the universe, who had presided over the beginning of civilization in ancient Egypt and therefore stood for social research Vol 72 : No 1: Spring 2005 v wisdom itself. In that context, a scientist’s error would be equivalent to heresy. The use of such language by some of the most eminent scientists of the day, even into the early part of the twentieth century, such as Wilhelm Ostwald’s “Science takes the place of the divine,” now seems uncomfortable at the very least. But it was in good part an attempt to help establish the standard norms of scientific conduct while also inoc­ ulating science against those who for various reasons were hostile to what they perceived to be the triumphalist assumption of an overarch­ ing epistemological authority by science. But ironically, all along, and to this very day, scientists have known in their very bones that this elevating m etaphor is quite at odds w ith the actual pursuit of scientific research. To be sure, in those moments when the work at last succeeds, the ensuing eupho­ ria makes the pain endured during all the intermediate steps seem w orth it, and even an analogy to a religious experience may assert itself. But on the way to those rare eureka moments, practitioners of science know well that the path is strewn with hurdles and pitfalls, costly detours, with m inor and major blunders and gremlins in the experimental equipment or in the theoretical presuppositions. The search may be so long and tedious, so demanding on one’s energy and spirit, that one of the persistent words in scientists’ private correspon­ dence is “despair.”As Stephen Gould once remarked about some biolog­ ical research, “Over 90 percent of the day’s work generally turns out to be for naught, and then you still have to clean out the mouse cage.” A perhaps more elegant way to put this perception is that of Goethe’s Faust, who discovers that hum an affairs are constantly apt to be misdi­ rected owing to the innate dialectic by which each positive advance has to battle with the “spirit that ever negates.” But all this is being kept quiet from the public, and does not show up in the scientific literature. As Peter Medawar, in his brilliant book, TheArt ofthe Soluble, put it, “It is no use looking to scientific ‘papers,’for they not merely conceal but actively misrepresent the reasoning that vi smtiiall neseandhi goes in the work they describe.” And P. A. M. Dirac, then the dean of physicists, made this frank confession in a 1972 essay: The research physicist, if he has...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1944-768X
Print ISSN
0037-783X
Pages
pp. v-ix
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-30
Open Access
No
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