It’s all too much

3 08 2012

The point is that evidence can be unreliable, and therefore you should use as little of it as possible. . . . I mean, people don’t realize that not only can data be wrong in science, it can be misleading. There isn’t such a thing as a hard fact when you’re trying to discover something. It’s only afterwards that the facts become hard.*

~Francis Crick

It’s no surprise that Crick is a theorist, is it?

I quite like this quote, and (I think) used it in my dissertation, but it also makes me nervous.

First, why I like it: It puts theory first, forces you to think of the evidence in terms of a theory in which it makes sense. If you let the evidence go first, you may end up hiking into a dead end, both because you’re misinterpreting the evidence as evidence (i.e., taking as fact something which is not, yet) and because you miss other bits because you don’t have a way of seeing those bits as something which matters.

But this is where the unease kicks in: Theory can mislead, as well. Thomas Kuhn noted this in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his arguments on paradigm shift, although Max Planck had the pithiest observation on this phenomenon: “Science progresses one funeral at a time.”

So, theory leads, and theory misleads.

Richard Rhodes, in his magisterial The Making of the Atomic Bomb, ticks off any number of discoveries which were missed by those with the most data because they weren’t able to see the data correctly.
The most well-known story is that of Frederick Smith, who didn’t discover X rays:

. . . not so unlucky in legend as the Oxford physicist Frederick Smith, who found that photographic plates kept near a cathode-ray tube were liable to be fogged and merely told his assistant to move them to another place. . . . Röntgen isolated the effect by covering his cathode-ray tube with black paper. When a nearby screen of fluorescent material still glowed he realized that whatever was causing the screen to glow was passing through the paper and the intervening air. If he held his hand between the covered tube and the screen, his hand slightly reduced the glow on the screen but in the dark shadow he could see its bones.

So is this a case of theory leading, or misleading? Or is this a third case, where a willingness to follow the evidence led to a hitherto overlooked phenomenon?

My guess: all three. Physics at the turn of the century was in the start of a creative tumult, a half-century active quake zone of discovery: old theories cracked under the pressure of irreconcilable data, new theories upended the known world and brought forth phenomenon which had previously hidden among the unknown unknowns, and all of this piled up and into the felt urgency to explain not just this new world, but a whole new universe.

There was too much of everything, a glorious and disorienting plenty on which one of the finest collection of minds in human history feasted; is it any surprise that pursuit of this course meant that dish was neglected?

All of this is a long way of saying I’m having a bitch of a time trying to make sense of my foray into medieval history. I don’t have a theory, don’t have a direction, and while I’m unbothered by—hell, actively defend—a certain amount of dilettantism, I’ve wandered enough to have become frustrated by my wanderings.

I’m not too worried, though. As frustrating as frustration is, it works for me, (eventually) crowbarring me out of my “it’ll come” complacency and into a “go get it” activity—which is to say, I’ll come up with a theory which will guide me to look at this, not at that.

I’m not doing the [kind of] science Crick did, so his observations on the process of discovery don’t necessarily translate across the fields, but he is right that if you’re going to find anything, it helps to know what you’re looking for.

(*As quoted in Horace Freeland Judson’s The Eighth Day of Creation)