Problems with Science Aren’t New

Just to reiterate, the problems I discussed in my last post are not meant to cause despair. Science has had these problems since at least 1830, when Charles Babbage wrote his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England. Here are a few quotes, in the first few of which he is addressing the problems of forging, cooking, or trimming one’s statistical data.

Forging differs from hoaxing, inasmuch as in the later the deceit is intended to last for a time, and then be discovered, to the ridicule of those who have credited it; whereas the forger is one who, wishing to acquire a reputation for science, records observations which he has never made.

Of Cooking. This is an art of various forms, the object of which is to give ordinary observations the appearance and character of those of the highest degree of accuracy. One of its numerous processes is to make multitudes of observations, and out of these to select only those which agree, or very nearly agree. If a hundred observations are made, the cook must be very unhappy if he cannot pick out fifteen or twenty which will do for serving up.

Trimming consists of clipping off little bits here and there from those observations which differ most in excess from the mean, and in sticking them onto those which are too small; a species of ‘equitable adjustment,’ as a radical would term it, which cannot be admitted in science.

A young man passes from our public schools to the universities, ignorant almost of the elements of every branch of useful knowledge.

Thanks, Charles, for restating that old scientific truism about newness under the sun.

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