A Student of History

May 1, 2006

Looking for a certain answer

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Maass @ 7:33 pm

Lisa Jardine has written an entertaining column for the BBC website, called "Believe it or not: The battle over certainty." It is the 1st of her weekly columns.  From the article:

Sometimes, if you're lucky as a historian, you find a bit of evidence which illuminates a big idea. That happened to me this week in the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, Cambridge. The thought uppermost in my mind was how odd it is that non-scientists think of science as being about certainties and absolute truth. Whereas scientists are actually quite tentative – they simply try to arrive at the best fit between the experimental findings so far and a general principle.

What made her think along these lines? "a ship's journal kept by a 17th Century English sea captain, who had offered to carry some state-of-the-art scientific equipment on a voyage to the west coast of Africa and back – two new pendulum clocks."  She goes on to tell of his experiment, to "know" for sure what's what, especially in science. That is her point–we tend to want definitive answers from science (especially medicine?), and get frustrated when we don't. "Because most of us want more certainty, we're on the side of the 17th Century's ship's captain, believing the experiments ought to prove the scientific theory once and for all. Unfortunately, where arguments about the ecology are concerned, time is not on our side," she concludes. 

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