In 1953, the celebrated chemist Linus Pauling, already on track for a Nobel Prize for his work on chemical bonds, solved a major biochemical mystery by figuring out the structure of DNA—but his solution was utterly wrong. Later that decade, the brilliant astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, who had played a major role in discovering how new elements are forged in the core of the Sun, came up with an explanation for the expanding universe. It was known as the “steady-state” theory, and while it was ingenious, it was wrong too. In the early 1900’s Lord Kelvin, one of the founders of thermodynamics, calculated the age of the Earth at 98 million years. He was off by a factor of 45 or so.

Each of these world-class scientists made whopping mistakes — and as the astrophysicist Mario Livio shows in his deeply researched and compellingly written new book Brilliant Blunders (Simon & Schuster), they weren’t alone. Darwin and Einstein, too, made significant errors. “Most people imagine that these great luminaries couldn’t possibly make mistakes,” says Livio, who holds a position at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

But they did. Some of the bloopers were perfectly understandable based on what was known at the time. Darwin, for example, like many of his contemporaries, assumed that the characteristics of two parents were “blended” in their offspring, “as in the mixing of paints,” writes Livio. Fair enough, given that the existence of genes wasn’t known at the time—except that after a few generations, the contribution of a great-grandparent or a great-great would have been so diluted that none of that ancestor’s genetic material would have been detectable in the descendants. Yet natural selection was supposed to work by having beneficial characteristics reinforced, not diluted. Oops.

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In other words, science is a social process and influenced by politics and money.  It's relatively effective in determining truth because qualified people have (more or less) equal authority. 

The beliefs of the populace evolve in a different framework - beliefs survive because they are commercially viable or appealing to people, or because they are useful for a government. 

In science we have (in theory) a kind of representative democracy of ideas, where people who are trained do the idea-selection, and (more or less) objective institutions train them and pay them.  Thus science is somewhat freer of idea-selection via commercial viability, emotional appeal or political use. 

No no, that isn't what I meant. 

The original post was about the blunders made by various geniuses, that were later corrected. 

No single person, no matter how brilliant, is absolutely right.  People in interaction, by challenges, criticism and discussion, make progress. 

Which theories survive depends on the framework of the interactions. 

Science is successful in uncovering truth because the social environment in which scientific theories exist, is relatively favorable for good theories, compared to the social environment in popular thought, or the environment that an autocrat might create. 

I used to work in a molecular biology lab, and the group members would give talks in rotation.  I felt sometimes after a talk, like I'd been subjected to an aggressive bombardment of challenges and criticisms.  But it was also basically OK, because I realized that it wasn't personal, that the aggression was aimed at ideas - like winds that make a tree grow strong. 

But you see, those people did feel free to aggressively criticize. 

A social environment where people are aiming to sell something, or to make a Grand Old Man happy, would not be propitious for the survival of good concepts and theories. 

I hope that clarifies what I was saying. 

I'm not denying the existence of objective truth, and if that's what post-modernists do, I'm not being post-modernist.  I'm not interested in shoveling BS. 

I know almost nothing about post-modernists, but if they explore the politics of ideas, perhaps they have good insights. 

Would say that most of science is covered by Samuel Beckett's quote "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Science isn't a single great leap but mostly a case of two steps forward one step back and eventually reaching the current position, but even that position can nearly always be refined.




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