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Lorraine Daston Scientific Error and the Ethos of Belief INTRODUCTION: KNOWLEDGE AND BELIEF FOR THE MODERN SCIENCES, THE BOUNDARY BETWEEN WHAT COUNTS as established and reliable knowledge and what is viewed as hypoth­ esis, conjecture, and tentative belief shifts constantly, according to the dynamic ofresearch and debate. Today’s reigning theory may be toppled by tomorrow’s finding; within the span of a single scientific career the received wisdom of a discipline may be fundamentally revised not once but several times. What was once judged to be audacious speculation may be confirmed by ingenious empirical tests; conversely, the very axioms of mathematics may be confronted with alternatives. On the basis ofthe latest research, knowledge is demoted to the status of mere belief, and belief promoted to that of knowledge; hence the instabil­ ity of the boundary between them—and the dynamism of the modem sciences. The price of scientific progress is the obsolescence of scien­ tific knowledge. The problem of knowledge and beliefwas bom with the modem sciences themselves in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. During this period, a whole range of explanatory systems and empirical claims that had been accepted as eternal truths for centuries was overturned. The cross-fertilization of natural history, natural philosophy, craft knowledge, and mathematics created new forms of inquiry, test, and proof—a whole “new science.” The origins of modem philosophy—one might argue the origins of modem Western thought tout court—lie in a seventeenth-century diagnosis ofpathological belief. The beliefs in quesCopyright © 2005 Lorraine Daston. social research Vol 72 : No 1 : Spring 2005 1 tion ranged from the theological and the astronomical to the geograph­ ical, from the anatomical to the natural philosophical: the voyages of discovery, the Reformation, the triumph of Copemican astronomy and Newtonian natural philosophy, William Harvey’s demonstration of the circulation of the blood—all confronted early modem thinkers with dramatic and disturbing examples of errors that had persisted for centuries on the authority of the veiy best minds. It is difficult to capture the enormity of this revelation of perva­ sive and enduring error for those who had been educated largely in the old systems of thought—the sickening realization that so many respected authorities could have been so wrong for so long. Some of the most famous projects ofthe Enlightenment, such the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean d’ Alembert, germinated in this overwhelming awareness of having only recently emerged from over a millennium of collective intellectual error. One of the avowed aims of the Encyclopédie was to serve as a kind of time capsule to preserve the new discoveries should war and pestilence plunge Europe once again into darkness: “a sanctuary, where the knowledge of man is protected from time and from revolutions” (d’ Alembert, 1976:121). The search for an explanation ofand thereby an antidote to future intellectual disasters centered on the problem of excessive belief. This was regarded as an emotional, ethical, and even medical, as well as intel­ lectual malady, and one with potentially devastating consequences. Much blood as well as ink had been spilled in early modem religious contro­ versies, and throughout the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries “enthusiasm” and “superstition,” both diagnosed as pathologies of reli­ gious belief, were reviled as sources of ecclesiastical and civil unrest. Excessive belief stemmed from psychological and corporeal causes, both ofwhich had to be strictly managed in the susceptible: too great an appe­ tite for the wondrous (asserted to afflict the vulgar and unlettered), a too soft and therefore impressionable brain (as allegedly found in women and children), or too much black bile (the temperament ofmelancholics) might all cause credulity. The fact that excessive belief was understood at least partly in medical terms by no means exonerated sufferers from 2 social research the moral responsibility of restraint; spiritual and bodily regimens must be rigorously followed to rein in such dangerous inclinations. Cambridge philosopher Henry More acknowledged that false enthusiasts—people who sincerely but mistakenly believed they were directly inspired by God—were often melancholic and that in such people “the enormous strength and vigour of the Imagination” was affected by the weather, wine, and certain potions. But he blamed the enthusiasts for...


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