The middling paths of science

An online essay on the Nature website by Phillip Ball (no relation) caught my eye, titled “Arthur Eddington was innocent!” The subject is Arthur Eddington‘s famous test of Einstein’s theory of relativity, in which he compared the observed locations of stars during a solar eclipse to Newtonian and relativistic predictions.

Later historians have noted that Eddington’s analysis discarded data from a telescope that did not fit the relativistic predictions. Because Eddington was a supporter of Einstein at the time, the implied accusation is that the experiment was biased and unjustifiably promoted as confirmation of Einstein’s theory. However, recent re-examination of the data by Daniel Kennefick concludes that it was not Eddington who chose to discard this data but Dyson, leader of the expedition and much less likely to deliberately discard data in order to favor Einstein’s new theory.

I’d like to add to this record of unfair cynicism – I looked into another famous accusation of a lack of scientific integrity while working on Wikipedia genetics pages. In 1936 the statistician R.A. Fisher observed that Mendel’s results were “too good to be true”. Many have popularized this to imply that Mendel fudged his data (although the ratios he observed were not incorrect). A 2001 review by Fairbanks and Rytting conclude that there are botanical and statistical reasons that could explain Mendel’s results. In addition, they note that Mendel published only a subset of his experiments — it is not surprising that he may have published the better numbers.

Phillip Ball concludes,

The motto of the Royal Society — Nullius in verba, loosely translated as ‘take no one’s word’ — is often praised as an expression of science’s guiding principle of empiricism. But it should also be applied to tellings and retellings of history — we shouldn’t embrace cynicism about how scientists do their work just because it’s become cool to knock historical figures off their pedestals.

I like learning about the uncertain paths that the history of science has taken, but I tend to bristle in response to this other type of relativism — one that cynically reduces it to the status of social construct. Scientists are fallible and human, but the overall process generally contains an earnest desire for truth and discovery. I prefer this middle path between cynicism and idealization.

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