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The Invention Of Science: How The Very First Fact Came To Be

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In 1646, Sir Thomas Browne published a work called Pseudodoxia epidemica, or "the epidemic of false knowledge" (often called Vulgar Errors). Browne wanted to rid the world of a vast range of false beliefs -- that elephants have no knees, that beavers bite off their testicles to avoid capture, that badgers have legs on one side shorter than on the other, that garlic disempowers magnets, and so on and on.

Most of the false beliefs Browne addressed came from old books by revered authorities -- that garlic disempowers magnets had been stated by Pliny and Plutarch, for example. Against these weighty authorities, Browne marshaled eyewitness accounts, reason and the testimony of other books. But he felt as if the cause he was engaged in was almost impossible -- he compared himself to David taking on Goliath armed only with a sling.

Browne's problem was that he had no simple way of describing what he was doing. We would say that he was correcting errors by establishing the facts -- but Browne did not have the word "fact" in this modern sense. And we know how you establish facts -- you rely on eyewitness testimony, you consult authorities who have themselves consulted the best authorities, and if necessary you go and check for yourself, much as Browne checked the claim that garlic disempowers magnets by floating magnets in garlic juice and showing that they still pointed north.

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Fifteen years later, the word "fact" in its modern sense was suddenly everywhere. The newly founded Royal Society, the first proper scientific society, declared that it was in the business of finding out new facts.

The word "fact" is the marker of a radical cultural change. One could no longer win an argument by citing a Greek or Roman author (the Royal Society's motto, nullius in verba, or "take no one's word for it," means, in effect, don't rely on citations); the only authorities now were experience, experiment and eyewitnessing.

In other words, the Royal Society appealed to what began to be called "evidence" -- evidence, fact and eyewitness being terms introduced from the law courts (where a "fact" was a criminal act, as in "an accessory after the fact").

Old texts were deprived of their unquestioned authority and in their place new, reliable information was produced.

We think of the scientific revolution as being about telescopes and microscopes, barometers and air pumps. And so it is. But it is also about a process whereby old texts were deprived of their unquestioned authority and in their place new, reliable information was produced. It is about, to use Karl Rove's terminology, the making of a "reality-based community," the first reality based community.

If we go back to the middle of the 15th century, it was then seriously thought that Aristotle had known everything worth knowing; and that the only basis for a sound knowledge lay in commenting on texts of Aristotle. University lectures consisted of professors reading Aristotle, Euclid and other classical authorities aloud to their students. They spoke ex cathedra, which is to say they were not to be argued with.

By the middle of the 17th century, all that was changing: what had been called the monarchy of Aristotle was being replaced by what was now called the "republic of letters" -- a virtual community of experts, a community in which authority was never settled but was always up for grabs. They laid claim to what they called libertas philosophandii, philosophical liberty, the liberty to disagree with anyone and everyone.

sir thomas browne
Circa 1645, English physician and author Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682). (Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Two things made this revolution possible. First came the printing press, whose impact grew steadily through the centuries as books became ever cheaper and more numerous. A manuscript culture gave place to a print culture, which meant that (as in Browne's Vulgar Errors) vast numbers of texts could be pitted against each other, no one of them able to claim ultimate authority. It was the printing press which created the republic of letters as a community of experts reading and debating the same books.

Second, Columbus discovered America. The full impact of this hasn't been recognized in the past because we take the idea of discovery for granted. But the word "discovery" was brand new, and spread from Portuguese to all the European languages along with news of the discoveries of Columbus and Vespucci. With discovery came the idea that discoverers can claim a sort of ownership in their discovery -- the beginning of this is the naming of America after Amerigo.

What was shocking about the discovery of America was not just that the Greeks and the Romans knew nothing about it. It was also that the Aristotelians claimed to have proven that there could be no land in the opposite hemisphere from the Old World -- the discovery of America demonstrated that experience trumps proof, and that sailors often know more than philosophers.

We live, we are told, in a post-fact world. Truth is being replaced by truthiness.

Printing, the voyages of discovery, the new language of "fact" and "evidence" (and of "theory," "hypothesis" and "experiment") -- these altered the fundamental nature of knowledge; they underpinned and made possible the activities of the key scientists we read about when we read about the scientific revolution, including Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton.

The Invention of Science is thus not just about one discovery after another; it is about the creation of the first reality-based community.

Some think that that form of knowledge is under threat in the new digital age. We live, we are told, in a post-fact world. Truth is being replaced by truthiness. Rove claimed that we make our own reality -- he was a right-wing postmodernist, just as there are plenty of left-wing postmodernists.

Perhaps it is because we are coming to the end of the age of the fact that it is for the first time possible to write about the invention and triumph of the idea of the fact. I hope not. For it is the reality-based community which gave us the Industrial Revolution and all the triumphs of science and technology which have followed on from it. If that community cannot sustain itself, we will indeed find ourselves in a new Dark Ages.

David Wootton's new book, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution, is a groundbreaking examination of the greatest event in history, the Scientific Revolution. It is shortlisted for the World's largest history award, the 2016 Cundill Prize in Historical Literature. The $100,000 prize will be awarded in Toronto, Canada the evening of November 17.

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