Darwin-L Message Log 5:43 (January 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<5:43>From ad201@freenet.carleton.ca  Sun Jan  9 09:35:59 1994

Date: Sun, 9 Jan 1994 10:39:20 -0500
From: ad201@freenet.carleton.ca (Donald Phillipson)
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Method

Bayla Singer (bsinger@eniac.seas.upenn.edu) wrote Jan  8

|Mike salovesh raises the question of how to deal with what might be called
|'inspired guesses.'
|Well, how do we deal with, e.g., Lucretius and atomic theory?
|The ideal (normative?) way is to accept an idea as a hypothesis until
|it is rigorously proven by accepted methods.  Coming back to Wegener:
|I clearly remember gazing, in my elementary school years (late 1940s),
|at the map of the world and thinking how well South America would fit
|into Africa, etc.  How much credit should I get, who not only didn't
|publish, but had not the foggiest idea that I should even -think-
|about a way such movement could possibly have happened?
|We can take my daydreams as one end of a spectrum: Wegener and the
|brilliant-guesser linguists went further, but in the judgement of
|their disciplinary peers not quite far enough.

You suggest the plausible but now discarded idea that the process of
creation/invention (i.e. thinking a genuinely novel thought) and the
process of proof (that it is true) are or ought to be related.
Repeated empirical failures have led to most scholars abandoning the

The historical record suggests no no one gets credit for sheer
originality.  Credit comes for "making a contribution" i.e.
integrating the novel idea with the rest of the discipline, or else
for solving disciplinary problems.  Being right is (usually) necessary
but not sufficient.

Inspired guesses that do not integrate with at least some other
knowledge are a non-category.  The classic example is Velikovsky's
guess that Venus was hot when astronomers thought it was cold.  (1) He
could not provide data or reasoning to show why he might be right
(and he was right);  (2) His proposition Venus=hot could not be linked
to the rest of planetary science at that date.  So he was right, but
his "contribution to science" was zero.

Atomism in Lucretius' day was an interesting but philosophical idea --
not a "disciplinary topic" or a "research problem" in any branch of
what we now call science.  (It became a disciplinary topic only for
Newton and a research problem in 1800, cf. Dalton.)  Continental drift
was in 1910 probably scorned because it was too simple to be
plausible, but no less because it solved no current problem in
geophysics -- even though "problems" in narrative sciences like
palaeontology and geophysics are much less clearly demarcated than in
experimental sciences like chemistry.

When Wegener suggested South America fitted into Africa, he got no
credit because he was proposing a true solution to what had not yet
become a disciplinary problem.  When you were daydreaming the
identical idea, you were not at "one end of a spectrum" with
geophysicists.  You were not a player in their game, so no one would
have accepted your idea (if published) even as a hypothesis.

|                                  There were many incandescent
|electric light bulbs developed before Edison's, and he himself
|developed many improvements afterward, to the point where it is
|extremely difficult for the knowledgeable historian to say "this is
|'the' light bulb patent."

There was only one equally bright and long-lasting lamp, Joseph
Swan's, a year earlier.

Whether "knowledgeable" or not, the discipline-oriented historian has
to define `the' in terms of the current discipline, rather than in
terms of either Edison or novelty.  Her criteria might be launching an
industry that did not exist before, providing the commercial or
material basis for a new technology, reducing house fires (from gas
lamps) etc.  Good criteria could also be used elsewhere in the
discipline, to identify `the' critical invention in mediaeval warfare
or aviation or city planning.

This is the ideal/normative view.  However, like all the humanities
and social sciences, the discipline of history is not under the
material or social constraints that make the natural sciences both
uniquely productive and 99% unanimous in their conclusions.
Linguistics is obviously polyvalent like the social sciences, not
convergent like astronomy, physics, chemistry, etc.  (Scope for a
serious debate here, whether (1) all disciplines are on the same
"spectrum" with experimental physics at one end and sociology at the
other, or (2) humanities and social sciences are a (or two) species
different from the natural sciences, and should not be allowed to
claim the NS's privileges, e.g. that discoveries in one field (say
linguistics) are likely to apply in another (say sociology.)

None of this means we don't need inspiration, guesses, etc.  But we
need not waste time looking for parallels between methods of discovery
(or original invention) and methods of proof (that something is true).
Part of what makes history of science fascinating is the prospect of
discovering more about both invention and proof.

 |         Donald Phillipson, 4050 Hall's Road, Carlsbad           |
 |      Springs, Ont., Canada K0A 1K0; tel: (613) 822-0734         |
 |  "What I've always liked about science is its independence from |
 |  authority"--Ontario Science Centre (name on file) 10 July 1981 |
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