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Modern Science

Our schools commonly teach a storybook view of the modern scientist and modern science. This storybook view sometimes presents the scientist as a selfless researcher, governed by logic and dedicated to advancing the bounds of knowledge. In this perfect world, new ideas that make more sense than accepted views are accepted promptly when the right data and logic are provided. The real story behind Alfred Wegener, Galileo and Darwin shows us that this is not always the way things work (see Wegener and Galileo). While there is much to respect in the modern scientist, they are human. Attachment to the status quo occurs amongst scientists just as it does in other fields. The acceptance or rejection of a new concept or theory isn't always driven strictly by logic or the weight of data.

Modern science doesn't work the way many believe. Thomas Kuhn was a philosopher of science who wrote "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions". This book is the original source of the popular term "paradigm shift". One theme of the book is that scientific communities do not embrace radical new ideas without resistance [_1_] . This is true even when the new ideas are clearly more consistent with the data than the status quo. This reality was stated best by Max Planck, the famous quantum physicist; "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.". New ideas that challenge the status quo are scrutinized much more carefully and sometimes openly ridiculed. And when these new ideas are ridiculed, they are likely to be ridiculed by some very important scientists. In 1672, when Laurent Cassegrain proposed the design used in most modern research telescopes (see Reflecting on History), he was publicly ridiculed by perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, Isaac Newton. Galileo ridiculed Kepler for suggesting that the Moon could affect the earth's tides [_2_] .

The science that is typically written up in history books is the science of great discoveries and great theories. That is only part of science. An equally important part of science that is not glamorous; the science of the skeptic and the science of the 'slugger'. An important part of science is the requirement that new discoveries be able to be replicated by other researchers before they are accepted. This helps prevent false theories from being widely accepted. This requirement for replication and the refusal to accept a new discovery until it is possible to replicate it can easily be easily be interpreted by naive commentators as "reactionary". Another important part of science is what Kuhn refers to as 'normal' science, the science of the journeyman. Journeymen are ignored because their work taken individually is not very important. Taken together it is. They move the state of knowledge forward in small incremental steps until a major discovery is almost guaranteed. This is one reason why so many Multiple Discoveries occur in science.


Copyright Joseph Sant (2016).
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1. Kuhn Thomas S., University of Chicago Press, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, ,
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2. Johannes Kepler, Edward Rosen, Courier Corporation, Kepler's Somnium: The Dream, Or Posthumous Work on Lunar Astronomy, , 69
In the references, Edward Rosens, notes that Galileo considered Kepler's concept that the moon could affect the earths water as childish.
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