William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Belloc On The Limited Intelligence Of Scientists

And always keep a-hold of Nurse.

From Hilaire Belloc’s Richelieu, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia & Londen, 1929, p. 23, in the context of disproving the social theory of historical events, i.e. the one which claims individuals are not influential, yet somehow groupings of them are.

The conquests of physical science were due to minute and extensive observation conducted by vast numbers of men, and therefore, for the most part, by the unintelligent. Science attracted some few men of high culture and some even (much fewer) of strong reasoning power: but in themselves mere observation and comparison, the framing of hypotheses and the testing of them by experiment need no intellectual qualities above the lowest and therefore an obvious occupation for those who despise or do not grasp the use of the reason. It has even been maintained that the ceaseless practice of exact measurement dulls the brain. At any rate, the business of modern physical science was not attached to, and became more and more divorced from, philosophy—and therefore from theory which is philosophy’s guide.

But this, for the most part unintelligent, mass of observation, has led to astounding results….As a consequence, its prestige has risen prodigiously; its methods, conclusions, and much more, the moral atmosphere in which it works has affected every other art, and every other study; notably did it affect the spirit of history in the later nineteenth century.

Was this offhand comment fair then? Fair still now? Seems pretty accurate to me, and I speak of one of the fold.

Of course, the egos of scientists have done anything but shrink since these words were penned. Except for activists and politicians, no man is more ready to self congratulate himself over his profession than a scientist. Yet it takes some brains to do the routine tasks of these artisans. But maybe less than has been claimed. And, after all—and this is Belloc’s main point—facility with integration does not give one more insight into what defines the good life than do the abilities possessed by, say, carpenters.

Be sure you understand what is being criticized here. People not knowledge. Science is often spoken of by its practitioners as a thing, a real entity, and a poor one, too; one whose honor is always in dire and desperate need of defending; a damsel in acute distress, beset upon continuously by the forces of unreason. These perpetually nervous guardians are certain sure that if the percentage of the population who cannot on demand name the weight of a neutrino slips below a fixed level, then the mullahs and priests will take over and enforce blind dogma.

As if the weight of the neutrino is not dogma. And never mind that it was the theological bent of priests and Abrahamic religious which gave birth to Science, which in many cases, to this very day, was advanced by those sporting dog collars and cloaks.

Plus it’s true that in our culture kiddies grow up with the myths and legends of scientists. While everybody knows Einstein, how many can name, for instance, Aristotle? Or Bach?

Anyway: scientists. Sparkling geniuses all, or regular, somewhat tedious, folk?


17 Comments

  1. Neither all geniuses nor tedious folk. I’ve met both arrogant and winsome, brilliant and pedestrian. Most do tend to be self-assured and argumentative, but there’s selective pressure in the educational process for such so why be surprised? Belloc’s quote is snobbish, even if accurate, with an implied self-congratulation for not being one of those who “despise or do not grasp the use of the reason.” And what’s this praise of theory?! The sidebar modern aphorism reminds us “The love of theory is the root of all evil.”

  2. Briggs

    8 August 2013 at 9:15 am

    Gary,

    Praise of theory? Where?

  3. Belloc: “The conquests of physical science were due to minute and extensive observation conducted by vast numbers of men, and therefore, for the most part, by the unintelligent. … But this, for the most part unintelligent, mass of observation, has led to astounding results…”

    Briggs: “Seems pretty accurate to me, and I speak of [as?] one of the fold.”

    Briggs – I hope you keep that quote where you can see it every time you’re inclined to snivel about some bit a odd, dopey, weird and even wrong research by some oddball. …because… as both Belloc AND you concur, it the aggregate result of such pithy & sometimes wrong studies/publications that lead to genuinely good results.

    Looking back, one can find in pretty much every discipline misguided and wrong, even plain stupid (especially apparent with hindsight) findings. Some persist to the present; consider a significant relevant example: Homeopathy.

    Homeopathy appears to have begun with a 16th century Swiss-German pharmacologist, Paracelsus, who observed that ‘the dose makes the poison.’ With that was the observation that in many situations small doses of otherwise deadly toxins had a profound positive benefit.

    That’s known as Hormesis (still so obscure most spell checkers flag it as a misspelling).

    Before that could be explored in rigor enough charlatans pounced to invent homeopathy that further study was effectively squelched.

    It wasn’t for hundreds of years, yesterday basically, when a reputable toxicologist, Edward Calabrese, rediscovered the Hormesis effect (around 1966, then around 1985 he started to pursue this seriously (e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1299203/).

    When the California EPA drooling for a reason to impose more restrictive pollution controls what we are observing, in part, is a 500 year old mindset that if a substance is toxic it is always toxic in all doses (e.g. as noted early in http://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1017&context=dose_response&sei-redir=1&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.bing.com%2Fsearch%3Fq%3Dhormesis%2B%252BUSAF%2Bresearch%26qs%3Dn%26form%3DQBRE%26pq%3Dhormesis%2B%252Busaf%2Bresearch%26sc%3D0-12%26sp%3D-1%26sk%3D#search=%22hormesis%20%2BUSAF%20research%22 ).

    Thus, an early discovery, now called hormesis co-opted by charlatans (& now cranks) as homeopathy before it could be properly studied is another really stupid situation only now getting rectified. Why not critique that in a way that furthers progress?

    The stunted research into hormesis just one example of how all science progresses in fits & starts, wrong turns & outright idiotic research (and even that commonly contains some little gem waiting for proper exploration). It’s the intellectual weakling who’s primary contribution is the critique: “Any fool can criticize and that’s what most fools do” is the saying.

    Firms need people that can move things along in a constructive direction — that’s what they’ll pay for, not critics which are freely available everywhere…and especially not critics who’s contribution is focused on obscure fringe topics like http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=8248.

  4. Briggs

    8 August 2013 at 10:01 am

    Ken,

    Dude?

  5. I know that you are just trying to stick it to us, and so in the same vein.

    Praise of theory here: “At any rate, the business of modern physical science was not attached to, and became more and more divorced from, philosophy—and therefore from theory which is philosophy’s guide.”

    As to the intelligence of scientists, lets go to the video.

    http://www.statisticbrain.com/iq-estimates-by-intended-college-major/

    or

    http://pieceofmind.wordpress.com/2008/11/25/but-where-do-bloggers-fit/

    Overall Belloc’s quote comes across more as resentment or projection than as an unbiased observation. However, there is a nugget of truth to want he is saying, although it does not apply particularly to science. This is that advances in technology and social interactions come primarily from workers directly involved (necessity is the mother of invention) and not from ivory tower (armchair) theorizing. Nevertheless both have their place and neither says much about intelligence. It is a sort of evolutionary process according to Hayek.

    No doubt that I am misrepresenting what you are trying to say, but turn about is fair play.

  6. Ye Olde Statistician

    8 August 2013 at 11:19 am

    There is no such thing as a fact independently of theory. Fact comes from factus est, the participle of a verb, meaning “that which has the property of having been accomplished” and it retained the meaning of “feat” or “accomplishment” well into Jane Austen’s time. As an example of the absence of fact without theory, historian John Lukacs once asked which of the following dates marked the onset of World War II:
    a) 7 Jul 1937
    b) 1 Sep 1939
    c) 7 Dec 1941
    d) ? Jul 1701
    e) 15 May 1702

    To place the issue in the context of natural science, physicist Pierre Duhem pointed out the following example:

    “…[T]ake two physicists who do not define pressure in the same manner because they do not admit the same theories of mechanics. One, for example, accepts the ideas of Lagrange; the other adopts the ideas of Laplace and Poisson. Submit to these two physicists a law whose statement brings into play the notion of pressure. They will hear the statement in two different ways. To compare it to reality, they will make different calculations so that one will find the law verified by facts which, for the other, will contradict it.”
    “Some reflections on the subject of experimental physics” (1894)
    [tr. Ariew & Barker, Pierre Duhem: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science]

    No amount of scientific experiment or data collection will settle the definitions of the terms, and definitions depend on a theory or metaphysical stance. One geologist can look at an iridium-rich stratum and “see” an asteroid strike while another looks and “sees” massive volcanic eruptions. If nothing else, theory tells us which facts one ought to try to collect.

    Hence, the distinction between those scientists who fill in the next decimal point and those who achieve breakthrough insights. One typically finds the latter group — the Einsteins, Poissons, Heisenbergs, et al. — are well-versed in philosophy, while the former are generally not.

  7. Scientific research can be tedious and frustrating, which clearly indicated scientists’ admirable dedications. Scientific progress requires deep knowledge of the subject, creative thinking and problem-solving skills, which demonstrate scientists’ cognitive ability and intelligence.

    Science has its own value, so does philosophy.

    Who is Hilaire Belloc? Knowing who Belloc is probably would not help young people to ever become Darwin, Kelvin, Pauling, Hoyle, or Einstein.

    The comments about scientists in this post sound more like sour grapes to me.

  8. Yet I see in this post, because I see what I want to see, the hints of things that frustrate me about the current state of public science. It is the difference between, ”

    “hypothesis, test hypothesis, prove hypothesis”

    AND

    “Hypothesis, figure out what will disprove hypothesis, test for disproof, and keep testing for disproof till you die”

    That I see. The first definition is loosely what we get in school. The second is Popper. I look at the climate science world and see scientists enamored with the proof of their ideas, but I keep looking at the edges and see the data that pops them. Never fear, there is another idea amongst the many models that has that data as “consistent”.

  9. Which Bach? John or the boys? And of course there was that lost son of Bach, PDQ Bach who wrote the famous music for the OK chorale

  10. To put this in perhaps a less inflammatory way: The kind of intelligence needed to succeed in normal science is not coextensive with intelligence in general.

    Perhaps an example from a slightly different area: in the high-tech business world out here in California, I run into many people who are brilliant – at technology. Being brilliant at business requires an entirely different skill set. It is possible, in fact, it is more common than not, that the genius programmer or engineer lacks any hint of business intelligence. But what is really frustrating for us business types: More often than not, the techies are evidently incapable of recognizing that they are NOT experts in business. This leads to all sorts of amusing interactions that are very much akin to the discussions between scientists and philosophers. The techies are absolutely stone-cold certain they understand everything, and that the business people are just being obstreperous; the business folks are flabbergasted by the idea that they would even need to explain some of the ideas that are being dismissed.

    Sure, there are Philosopher King equivalents in the technology world – by there are 10 clueless techies who have ridden a competition-free wormhole in the fabric of commerce to some success and because of that are totally convinced that what they do is really hard but what the business people do is utterly trivial. When yet another tech company fails or trips up because of yet another utterly stupid business decision, all the business people can do is shake their heads knowingly.

    (Aside: Business people MBAs. The Venn diagram doesn’t even overlap that much.)

  11. Weird editing in the ether. Several things in the comment above appear not as I typed them, but the sense sort of survived.

    Except the last line, which was:

    (Aside: Business people DO NOT EQUAL MBAs. The Venn diagram doesn’t even overlap that much.)

  12. Briggs,

    This, at least to me, reads as praise of theory: “At any rate, the business of modern physical science was not attached to, and became more and more divorced from, philosophy—and therefore from theory which is philosophy’s guide.”

  13. Noblesse Oblige

    8 August 2013 at 11:11 pm

    I have met hundreds, perhaps thousands of sceintists during my career. Indeed I am one of them. The truth is that like any group of humans, they are mostly pedestrian, some incompetent or dishonest, and quite a few are very good … and a precious two or three are sublime. Oddly the ones who are arrogant and overly self assured tend to be pedestrian or incompetent. The very good ones have a sense of what they don’t know.

  14. Question: Why is Einstein so much better known than many other scientists? A couple of decades ago, I attended a conference on “The Legacy of John Von Neumann” and an undergraduate asked me what was going on. When I explained it was a conference dedicated to the work of von Neumann, he said “Who”?

  15. Who besides Einstein has a hat trick of papers in one year each of which resolved, in terms which could be read and understood by a high school student, an easily described issue that was confounding the best thinkers of the time – followed a few years later by a theory of massive scope that was virtually impenetrable but appeared to be experimentally testable and was reported as passing the test …and looked eccentric, and rode a bicycle, and enjoyed the limelight!
    How would you describe to a high school student the nature and significance of von Neumann’s unique contributions?
    But if as per Briggs the only test is to name him then I guess it would be a pretty dullard who could not respond correctly to the instruction “Name John von Neumann”. And many who could name Alexander’s tutor could not name the physicist who first correctly explained Brownian motion.

  16. I suppose he thought Charles Darwin somewhat tedious.

  17. The values espoused, implicitly, are that intelligence is significant. It’s not.
    As T. Edison put it: “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
    Enough smarts is all that really matters–enough smarts combined with focused effort & diligence….

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