BY DORION SAGAN
Award-winning science writer, editor, and theorist
“Every scientific idea passes through three stages,” wrote William Whewell in his 1840 Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences:
First, it is ridiculed.
Second, it is violently opposed or claimed to be of only minor importance.
Third, it is accepted as self-evident.
Other versions and variations have appeared since, with the emergency rider that as a last resort a great new idea, to get itself properly noticed, may have to wait for the deaths of its most authoritative, and threatened, belittlers. (Noteworthy here is Arthur C. Clarke's first law, “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”) Such is one of the aporias in the history and philosophy of science, which is, after all, practiced by highly creative, highly fallible humans—that big-headed species whose members are wont to attribute near 100% correctness to their own beliefs. It is not seemly for authorities, including scientists, to wallow in a miasma of maybes. And yet this is a significant irony, as it is precisely the institutionalization of getting it wrong, of doing experiments that set up the possibility of making mistakes, and then of recognizing and correcting those mistakes, that has made science the most effective and pragmatic engine of knowledge acquisition on the planet, and given it its authority.
|Lynn Margulis, mother of Dorion Sagan, |
was dubbed "Science's Unruly
Earth Mother" by Nature magazine.
But that was then. In the weeks and months since she died in 2011, the public has been inundated with a spate of articles on the microbial constitution of our biological, physiological, and psychological identity—often without mentioning her. On Whewell’s amusing scale her world-scientific insights are caught between stages two and three, which we may paraphrase as “You’re right, but the idea is trivial” and “You’re right, the idea is important, but yes we knew this all along.”
Cosmic Apprentice, a volume of essays that challenge scientific and philosophical dogma, he discusses his mother’s ideas in "The Human is More than Human," and explores the reticence to new ideas in "Priests of the Modern Age."
"Profound, elegant, and funny, Cosmic Apprentice is a treat for anyone who likes to think—that is, for any true member of the Craniata, equipped with both brains and backbones!"
"As if to define what science is and what philosophy is weren’t hard enough, to delineate how the two fit together appears a formidable task, one that has spurred rather intense opinions. But that’s precisely what Dorion Sagan, who has previously examined the prehistoric history of sex, braves in the introduction to Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science. The essays in Cosmic Apprentice go on to explore such inevitably captivating subjects as our sense of identity, the nonlinearity of time, and the ethical dilemmas of biopolitics."