Sunday, November 23, 2008

On the Shoulders of Giants

While talking about his work, Isaac Newton famously said "Pigmaei gigantum humeris impositi plusquam ipsi gigantes vident" [If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.] By this he meant that his work built upon the work on other, often earlier, scientists.

This is a remark that's both banal and profound. Banal in the sense that we all depend on work done before by others to do our own work. Profound because it would be impossible to advance science without building on, and incorporating, earlier work. Science is a truly collaborate effort, both in time and space.

What I mean by this, is that advancements in science isn't done by disregarding earlier knowledge, but rather by new knowledge, or different understanding of existing knowledge.

This doesn't mean that old science doesn't get disregarded, as our understanding of how things work get better. What it means, is that even if we know a theory is imperfect, we don't disregard it, before we have a new theory that not only explains the parts the old theory had problems with, but also explains the parts that the old theory could explain just as well as the old theory.

Albert Einstein didn't overturn Isaac Newton's theories, he expanded them.

Charles Darwin did overturn earlier ideas, but that was because the older ideas didn't fit the facts. Darwin's theory of evolution did. Later biologists have expanded on Darwin's ideas, and incorporated Mendel's findings.

Every discovery in science strengthens our understanding of how things work, and allows us to modify our theories and hypothesis, so they get more accurate.

This is how science works.

This is what tells a scientists apart from a crank.

Yes, there are some times scientists who will make findings that are so groundbreaking, that we need to disregard our earlier theories, but this is a rare occurrence, and only happens as a result of a long hard process, where it's not only demonstrated that the facts don't fit the old theory, but that the facts fit a new theory instead. It doesn't happen by someone pointing at minor points where the mechanism is not entirely understood, and claim that this show the entire theory is flawed, as e.g. the neo-Creationist crowd tries to do with the Theory of Evolution.

Science adapt, but it also builds upon the existing knowledge. It doesn't accept the existing knowledge as the truth, and it continuously challenges the assumptions, but it doesn't disregard everything, just because there is something that's unclear. We know that there are flaws in some of theories, but as long as they are the best explanation, we keep them, fully expecting to expand on them in the future, modify them as needed, or even disregard them, if it turns out that they are too flawed to be of any use.

Scientists don't fear change - they embrace it.

People who do science, don't just stand on the shoulders of the giants in the past, they are also supported by a whole scaffold of other scientists on whose work and observations they base their own work and observations. This scaffold is strong, strong enough to continue to bear the weight of the scientists, even if one of the giants should collapse (as unlikely an event that might seem).

The giants are important to make the big steps in science, but all the other scientists are just as important. They are the ones that flesh out the theories, modify them to fit the data etc. They are the ones who take the work of the giants, and apply them.

This is why attacking the work of the giants won't help you overturn a scientific theory that you don't like. The giants, and their work, doesn't stand alone. When Theodosius Dobzhansky said "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution", he didn't embrace just the work of Charles Darwin, he embraced the work of the countless biologist who went both before him and after him. Dobzhansky looked at the whole body of work and observations inside the field, and simply stated something that should be obvious to anyone looking at it. Our understanding of evolution got started with the giant Charles Darwin, but we know so much more now, and understand it so much better, that while some of the foundations he laid are still there, much of it has been modified over the time, to a point where it bears little resemblance to what he came up with. This is not surprising - Darwin did not have the knowledge that has accumulated in the intervening years.

This is why scientists have little patience with people who just attacks the ideas of one scientist - as important as he might be - to advance their own agendas. Science doesn't work that way. If a scientist is wrong, it can be demonstrated through the facts, but it doesn't mean that you can insert your own ideas instead. Those ideas have to go through the same process as the original ideas, and survive the same scrutiny, to see if they fit the facts better.

They rarely do.



Blogger Maya said...

It'a shame sometimes (just sometimes) the theories turn out to be a house of cards. One of the challenges of being a scientist today. Mistakes in another scientist's work might bring your work down.

November 23, 2008 11:31 AM  
Blogger Kristjan Wager said...

Ideas some times turn out to be a house of cards, scientific theories rarely do (note that I am distinguishing between theories in the mundane sense, and theories in the scientific sense).

But yes, it's true that it happens all too frequently that mistakes in other peoples' work invalidates your own work, building on top of that work. This doesn't mean that your work is wasted, it just means that you have to re-interpret your own work, in light of the new knowledge.

Of course, here I am disregarding the cases where someone have fixed their results to fit with earlier results.

November 23, 2008 11:39 AM  

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