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Modern Times

History and science are two very challenging disciplines. One would expect that studying the history of science to be challenging as well. It is a difficult dance between the past and the present. The quote by the medieval historian, Bloch, probably says it best; "The past serves to understand the present; the present helps to understand the past" . If one divorces the past from the present there can be all sorts of consequences. Past scientists are sometimes held to standards that are not met by modern scientists. Historical achievements are sometimes given an importance that is hard to justify based on modern scientific activity.

A storybook view of a modern scientist might be that of a selfless researcher 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. 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.

The science that is typically written up in history books is the science of great discoveries and great theories. But there is an equally important part of science that is not glamorous; the science of the skeptic. 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".


Copyright Joseph Sant (2014).
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