Science Makes Progress Funeral by Funeral

Paul A. Samuelson? Max Planck? Thomas S. Kuhn? Henri Poincaré? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Resistance to revolutionary scientific theories is intransigent. Progress only occurs when the prestigious detractors from a previous generation die out. Here are four versions of a maxim eloquently stating this viewpoint:

Science advances funeral by funeral.
Science advances one funeral at a time.
Science progresses funeral by funeral.
Knowledge advances funeral by funeral.

Who should receive credit for this provocative remark?

Quote Investigator: The influential economist Paul A. Samuelson employed multiple versions of this saying containing the distinctive phrase: “funeral by funeral”. For example, in 1975 Samuelson published a “Newsweek” magazine column with the following passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

As the great Max Planck, himself the originator of the quantum theory in physics, has said, science makes progress funeral by funeral: the old are never converted by the new doctrines, they simply are replaced by a new generation.

Samuelson credited Planck, and it is true that the Nobel-Prize winning physicist articulated the same point, but his phrasing was not compact. Planck’s book “Wissenschaftliche Selbstbiographie” appeared in German in 1948, the year after his death. A translation by Frank Gaynor titled “A Scientific Autobiography” appeared in 1949. Planck discussed the opposition to novel scientific theories: 2

This experience gave me also an opportunity to learn a fact-a remarkable one, in my opinion: A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

QI believes that Samuelson should receive credit for the concise formulation with the phrase “funeral by funeral”, and Planck should receive credit for the longer statement and underlying idea.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1962 Thomas S. Kuhn published his landmark treatise “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, and he cited Planck’s insight: 3

And Max Planck, surveying his own career in his Scientific Autobiography, sadly remarked that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” [Footnote 8]

[Footnote 8] Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, trans. F. Gaynor (New York, 1949), pp. 33-34.

Samuelson referred to Planck in his “Newsweek” column as mentioned previously. Samuelson also included an instance of the saying in his blockbuster “Economics” textbook which was updated via many editions. The 10th edition contained this: 4

A Thomas Kuhn who applied himself to the study of economic thought would realize that it takes a generation for new ideas to become part of the conventional wisdom. Once again it was a case where, funeral by funeral, science progressed.

During a U.S. Congressional Hearing in 1975 Assistant Professor of Chemistry Don G. Scroggin attributed the saying to Planck: 5

And if we look long enough, we can always find a respected Ph.D. who will say exactly what we want to hear. Max Planck was one of the greatest scientists of all time. He was the father of the quantum theory, which revolutionized all of chemistry and physics and made possible the theories of Einstein, upon which nuclear technology is based. Max Planck said: “Science progresses funeral by funeral!” Some of the experts just never agree with new scientific theories, no matter how convincing the evidence.

In 1977 Samuelson employed the saying while writing in the journal “Economica”: 6

Still, as we know from Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm on the historical development of science, often progress is made only funeral by funeral. So it is appropriate that established ideas be subject to unsparing probing and testing like that provided by Kemp and Ng.

In 1979 Joseph Harry of Northern Illinois University writing in the pages of the “International Review of Modern Sociology” attributed an instance to the famous French mathematician and physicist Henri Poincaré: 7

I offer that this state of affairs supports Poincare’s observation that “science advances, funeral by funeral.”

In 1985 a Baton Rouge, Louisiana newspaper published a profile of a doctor who advocated listening to music to improve one’s health. The doctor ascribed a variant of the adage to Planck: 8

“Music will be recognized as a legitimate form of medicine. As the great physicist, Max Planck, once said: ‘Science changes funeral by funeral.’ The same is true for the great philosophical changes in medicine.”

In 1994 Samuelson published an article in the “Eastern Economic Journal” in which he employed the saying again, but this time he credited an anonymous sage: 9

A FINAL QUOTATION
As some sage has said,
Science advances funeral by funeral.”

In conclusion, Max Planck may be credited with the underlying idea of the adage under examination. Paul A. Samuelson has pointed to Max Planck, Thomas S. Kuhn, and an anonymous sage when disclaiming credit. Yet, evidence suggests that it was Samuelson who first expressed the notion concisely with the vivid phrase “funeral by funeral”.

Image Notes: Portrait of Max Planck circa 1878 accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of an antique grave from MrsBrown at Pixabay.

Notes:

  1. Date: 1975 June 16, Periodical: Newsweek, Article: Alvin H. Hansen, 1887-1975, Author: Paul A. Samuelson, Quote Page 72, Publisher: Newsweek, Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1968 (Copyright 1949), Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers by Max Planck (Max Karl Ernst Ludwig Planck), Translated from German by Frank Gaynor, Section: A Scientific Autobiography, Start Page 13, Quote Page 33 and 34, Greenwood Press Publishers, Westport, Connecticut. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1996 (Copyright 1962), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn, Third Edition, Chapter 12: The Resolutions of Revolutions, Quote Page 151, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1976, Economics by Paul A. Samuelson (Professor of Economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Tenth Edition, Chapter 42: Winds of Change: Evolution of Economic Doctrines, Quote Page 845, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  5. 1975, Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-Fourth Congress, First Session, Oversight Hearings on Nuclear Energy, Hearing Held November 14, 1975 in Boston, Massachusetts, Statement of Dr. Don G. Scroggin in Behalf of the Americans for Democratic Action, Start Page 11, Quote Page 117, Published by U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust) link
  6. 1977 February, Economica, Volume 44, Number 173, Reaffirming the Existence of “Reasonable” Bergson-Samuelson Social Welfare Functions by P. A. Samuelson (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Start Page 81, Quote Page 87, Published by Wiley on behalf of The London School of Economics. (JSTOR) link
  7. 1979, July-December, International Review of Modern Sociology, Volume 9, Number 2, Guest Editor’s Introduction by Joseph Harry (Northern Illinois University), Start Page 133, Quote Page 133, Published by International Journals. (JSTOR) link
  8. 1985 March 31, Sunday Advocate, Doctor believes music is medicine, and he prescribes it by Barbara Laker (Dallas Times Herald), Quote Page 10C, Column 6, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1994 Summer, Eastern Economic Journal, Volume 20, Number 3, The To-be-Expected Angst Created for Economists by Mathematics by Paul A. Samuelson (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Start Page 267, Quote Page 272, Published by Palgrave Macmillan Journals. (JSTOR) link