Monday, June 16, 2008


Digging Theories

A thought:

Nothing in science -- nothing in life, for that matter -- makes sense without theory. It is our nature to put all knowledge into context in order to tell a story, and to re-create the world by this means. ...

[It is] a word hobbled by multiple meanings. Taken alone without a or the, it resonates with erudition. Taken in everyday context, it is shot through with corrupting ambiguity. We often hear that such and such an assertion is only a theory. Anyone can have a theory; pay your money and take your choice among the theories that compete for your attention. Voodoo priests sacrificing chickens to please spirits of the dead are working with a theory. So are millenarian cultists watching the Idaho skies for signs of the Second Coming. Because scientific theories contain speculation, they too may seem just more guesswork, and therefore built on sand. That, I suspect, is the usual postmodernist conception: Everyone's theory has validity and is interesting. Scientific theories, however, are fundamentally different. They are constructed specifically to be blown apart if proved wrong, and if so destined, the sooner the better. "Make your mistakes quickly" is a rule in the practice of science. I grant that scientists often fall in love with their own constructions. I know; I have. They may spend a lifetime vainly trying to shore them up. A few squander their prestige and academic political capital in the effort. In that case -- as the economist Paul Samuelson once quipped -- funeral by funeral, theory advances.

- Edward O. Wilson, Consilience

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