What Has Science Done?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Joseph Henry and Modern Quackery

In my study of 19th and early 20th century physics, I came across a wonderful speech by Joseph Henry to the American Association for the Advancement of Science back in 1850. He has some poignant views on quackery that I believe put the current tussle concerning the teaching of evolution in high relief. Links to relevant aspects will be provided in the text.

. Under this head may be classed a great variety of petty artifices by which the vain, the superficial, and the unprincipled endeavor, generally at the expense of the labors of others, to elevate themselves into notice and impose upon credulity and ignorance of the public.

It should never be forgotten that true reputation must always be based on the favorable opinion of the few in
any country who are capable of properly appreciating the labors of him who would claim to have enlarged the bounds of human knowledge or to have done anything worthy of commendation by his fellow men.

The higher and more abstruse the character of the investigations he professes to have made, the smaller is the number of those who are capable of rendering a proper verdict. In this case especially the voices must be weighed, not counted.

He therefore who seeks approbation for his labors by appealing to a tribunal which from its character and pursuits is not qualified to appreciate them is practising a deception and is justly entitled to the name of a quack.

The man of honorable feelings and imbued with the true spirit of science presents the results of his investigations to some learned society or to the editor of some scientific journal where they will be scrutinised before they are published and where they will be presented to the eye of men capable of pronouncing on their merits.

The man of true science must of necessity be a little in advance of his age and be beyond the appreciation of the multitude. He therefore scorns an appeal to so low a tribunal and would prefer to be the author of a discovery the importance of which but few men in the whole nation would be capable of appreciating.

How different is the proceeding of the quack; he affects to despise the opinion of men of science and accuses them of jealousy, prejudice, and ignorance.

He appeals immediately to the public generally through the newspapers, and for approbation calls not on the few who are capable of judging of his merits but the
many who know nothing of the subject.

How many wonderful surgical operations are performed in our country every year and how rapidly are we increasing in our knowledge of this part of the healing art, if the public prints are to be credited. I would say to the public, beware of those whose merits are thus continuously proclaimed to the world, in whatsoever line they may be. Be not quick to trust your purse or your life in their hands.

In announcing, says Sir Humphry Davy, even the greatest and most important discoveries, the true philosopher will communicate his details with modesty and reserve. He will rather be a useful servant of the public bringing forth a light from under his cloak than a
juggler exhibiting fireworks with a trumpeter to announce their magnificence.

Let it never be forgotten that there is no abiding reputation to be obtained by devious ways. So far from this, every departure from the strict code of scientific procedure acts in the end like a negative quantity in algebra which tells in the opposite direction: That no man can long deceive his fellow man; the masquerader is exhibiting himself before those who are familiar with masquerading; that true fame in due time is awarded to those who deserve it but not always awarded to those who are most anxious to obtain it. It is always the result of successful effort, but ought never to be the object of pursuit.

Henry was a proponent during the 19th century of best science elitism. He believed that science requires a hierarchy of professionals to set standards for a scientific community and that the scientific enterprise should not be democratic if ones goal is the accumulation of truth. This is not to say, those of lower social classes were to be denied their opportunities, but merely that "mob rule" should not be what determines what is true and best in science.

And YES by mob, I mean the general public, not those with advanced degrees who study these subjects for a living and a lifetime.

Thank you for enduring a gratuitous link dump.