Monday, May 01, 2006



The historian, Lisa Jardine, has written a brilliant essay for BBC News on the all too human attraction to absolute beliefs and our difficulty in waiting for evidence to emerge before we make up our minds.

Jardine's starting point is a tour by John Mackay, an Australian advocate of creationism, through the UK.

"There is something rather attractive about absolute beliefs," writes Jardine. "We all find them comforting: give up chocolate for Lent and you are taking a small step towards God's approval. Uncertainty is much more unsettling."

Science has proven very useful in helping us to learn about the world we live in, but those who follow the scientific method must also learn live with a good deal uncertainty. Some people find that ambiguity impossible to live with.

Not only is scientific knowledge tentative by its very nature, but from the beginning, writes Jardine, "scientists have been suspicious whenever the data fits the hoped-for results too closely."

Jardine illustrates this point by recounting the story Captain Robert Holmes, who tested a pair of pendulum clocks for 17th Century Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens to help mariners find their longitude at sea.

The captain's report of the experiment to the Royal Society indicated that Huygens clocks were accurate beyond all expectations. And that's when Huygens became suspicious.

A great science story.


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