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ERRORS: Consequences of Big Mistakes in the Natural and Social Sciences / Vol. 72, No. 1 (Sp 2005)

Gerald Holton, Guest Editor
Arien Mack, Editor

At first blush, “science” and “error” seem to be polar opposites—the one a heroic pursuit of provable and widely sharable truths, the other a miserable exemplar of human frailty. This issue offers cases where real failures helped to bring to fruition some of the major advances in the sciences: nothing less than the discovery of the structure of the solar system; of the atomic theory of chemistry; of radioactivity; of long-distance radio waves; of steps toward the realization of nuclear weapons; of untenability of racist anthropology; of an understanding of altruism and more.

This issue of Social Research attests to the presence of fruitful errors in the natural sciences, we invited several distinguished social scientists to address the question of whether such errors occur in the social sciences.

This article discusses the instability of established and reliable scientific knowledge. For the modern sciences, the boundary between what counts as established and reliable knowledge and what is viewed as hypothesis, conjecture, and tentative belief shifts constantly, according to the dynamic of research and debate. Today's reigning theory may be toppled by tomorrow's finding; within the span of a single scientific career the received wisdom of a discipline may be fundamentally revised not once but several times. What was once judged to be audacious speculation may be confirmed by ingenious empirical tests; conversely, the very axioms of mathematics may be confronted with alternatives.

This article deals with the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896 and its significant impact on science and the world. The discovery by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen of X-rays in late 1895 was the most globally astonishing scientific event prior to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Some 50 books and pamphlets and 1,000 papers on X-rays were published in 1896 alone, remarkable testimony to the impact of these penetrating rays. By contrast, Henri Becquerel, who discovered radioactivity just a few months later, wrote seven papers on the subject in 1896, only two the following year, and then left this seemingly exhausted topic.

This article focuses on the difference between scientific and engineering mistakes. The world of technological-scientific systems is very different. When engineers make a major error it is common for a failure inquiry to be established, staffed by heavyweights, properly funded, and well publicized. There are two lessons that can be gained from documented events that show errors were committed during research. First, the scientific community rarely subjects its errors to the kind of analysis that engineers do regularly. Both fields use mathematics, make models, offer predictions. carry out simulations.

This article presents information on the scientific works of Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler and their contribution to science. Tycho Brahe, the eccentric and arrogant builder of astonishing instruments who didn't know what to do with his observations except to use them for an obviously awkward and desperately backward-looking cosmology, and Kepler, the indefatigable mathematician armed with a cornucopia of Brahe's data who fit a curve through the triangulated points on Mars's orbit and showed it to be an ellipse, thereby solving the outstanding problem of the solar system. Like many hoary myths, this one contains a smidgen of truth.

This article focuses on the error committed by Guglielmo Marconi pertaining to his discovery of the transmission of wireless signals across the Atlantic Ocean in 1901. On the twelfth and thirteenth of December 1901, in St. John's, Newfoundland, Marconi received an "S . . . S . . . S ..." on the wireless. On the fourteenth, he called a press conference to announce a groundbreaking event in the history of communication; the transmission of wireless signals across the Atlantic Ocean. In spite of initial skepticism on the part of some famous British scientists and engineers, Marconi's announcement was welcomed and quickly accepted as true. Marconi became the hero who had spanned the Atlantic without cables.

This article examines how John Dalton formulated his atomic theory of matter. Dalton's work called forth a vigorous international research program that has a continuous history from 1803 to the present--nanoscience long before the word became vogue. Almost from the start, that research program utterly transformed the science; moreover, it was atomistic theory that enabled chemistry, two generations after Dalton, to become the earliest example of a well-developed science-based theory acquiring the practical power to transform the world of technology and commerce. Dalton knew that water consists of 87.5 oxygen and 12.5 percent hydrogen by weight that is exactly seven times as much as oxygen as hydrogen.

This article addresses several errors in the kin selection theory of William D. Hamilton formulated in 1964. One of the enduring unsettled issues of evolutionary biology is the paradox of collateral altruistic behavior—that is, when some individuals subordinate their own interests and those of their immediate offspring in order to serve the interests of a larger group beyond offspring. Hamilton expanded this perception into a general theory. He defined the property of inclusive fitness, which totals the result of all interactions, whether altruistic, neutral, or negative, throughout a group of relatives and nonrelatives.

This article focuses on several illustrative errors that are critical for economic policy in the US as of March 2005. Economic errors can burden many beside the individuals who make the mistake, and sometimes even society as a whole. A notable example was the belief that an essential step in extracting an economy from recession or depression is elimination of deficit spending by the government. While there is no longer agreement by economists that expansion of such spending is invariably a sensible step, it is recognized that the simpleminded argument that leads many non-specialists to conclude that such deficit spending threatens to bankrupt the nation is an exercise in the fallacy of composition.

This article deals with the study of human errors in experimental psychology. The case of visual illusions illustrates the general proposition that every intelligent system makes good errors; otherwise it would not be intelligent. The reason is that the outside world is uncertain, and the system has to make intelligent inferences based on assumed ecological structures. Going beyond the information given by making inferences will produce systematic errors. Not making these errors would destroy intelligence. Unlike in theories of perception, errors in the social sciences are typically seen as annoyances.

This article focuses on the inseparable projects that make up modern social science. There are instances of social science "truths" that have been subsequently and convincingly demonstrated to be false. Perhaps, the mistake was more likely a political than a scientific one—that is, a mistake whose origin is to be found in the assumptions, preferences, and prejudices brought to the research question. Modern social science was established as two inseparable projects: a science project—deeper understanding of human behavior, relationships, institutions—and a political project to, among other things, improve the human condition, protect the homeland, and grow the economy.

This article discusses the questionable logic of 'mistakes' in the dynamics of knowledge growth in the social sciences. When the definitive history of the social sciences is written, it will have to be acknowledged that perhaps the dominant and most persistent motif is the effort to model those sciences after the physical and life sciences—or perhaps better, what the aspirants and practitioners of the social sciences believe the hard sciences to be. That effort is not the only or uniform story, because it has been challenged in so many ways, and so many alternative versions of the human sciences have been proposed over time.


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