January 01, 2006

How Do You Tell a Social Activist from a Scientist or Mathematician?

Well, how do you tell some social activists from scientists and mathematicians?

Jeffrey Shallit at Recursivity (cross posted on The Panda's Thumb), has an excellent post on what ex-blogger, mathematician, theologian and intelligent design creationist William Dembski and scientist, author, and business leader Stephen Wolfram have in common. Neither seems to be able to acknowledge their mistakes publicly. Although even the most meticulously written books have errors, neither Wolfram nor Dembski has even made errata pages for their books available.

As Shallit says,

Both Wolfram and Dembski seem to be taking a page from Canadian feminist Nellie McClung, who reportedly said, "Never retract, never explain, never apologize –- get the thing done and let them howl!" This might be a good motto for a social activist, but for a scientist or mathematician it is a dereliction of duty. If you want to be taken seriously when you're right, it's a good idea to be upfront about it when you're wrong.

But, of course, at least in the case of Dembski, he is far more a social activist than either a mathematician or a scientist. I'm not so sure about Wolfram, but it may well be true of him also.

Shallit's post is a good read with some very interesting examples of mathematicians and scientists who have acknowledged their error. My favorite example comes from a story told by Richard Dawkins in 1996.

A formative influence on my undergraduate self was the response of a respected elder statesmen of the Oxford Zoology Department when an American visitor had just publicly disproved his favourite theory. The old man strode to the front of the lecture hall, shook the American warmly by the hand and declared in ringing, emotional tones: "My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years." And we clapped our hands red.

Dawkins goes on to say,

Can you imagine a Government Minister being cheered in the House of Commons for a similar admission? "Resign, Resign" is a much more likely response!

It is often the case that more is learned from being wrong than being right. But that learning is only valuable if one is willing to admit the error and build on the new knowledge of both the subject and one's self. The problem, and the works of Wolfram and Dembski are clear examples, is that the un-admitted error becomes institutionalized; it takes on a life independent of its source. And the purveyors of the error(s) come to be identified with the error and the community that believes it. Not just the movement but also his or her very livelihood can come to depend on adhering to the slogan "never retract, never explain, never apologize."

And yes, this is the second time I've linked to a post by Jeffrey Shallit in the last two days.

Posted by DuaneSmith at January 1, 2006 09:11 PM | Read more on Science - General |

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It is easy to tell a mathematician from an social activists. One wants to change the real world, the other one does not know what it is.

Posted by: Johan Richter at January 8, 2006 07:19 AM

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